September 1, 2017

SpaceX orbits remote sensing spacecraft for Taiwan

Peter W. Merlin
special to Aerotech News

Technicians from Taiwan’s National Space Organization check out the Formosat-5 spacecraft prior to shipping the satellite to the United States.

Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite has embarked on a five-year mission to demonstrate the small Asian country’s indigenous space technology and remote sensing capabilities.

On Aug. 24, a SpaceX Falcon 9 lofted the 992-pound spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and placed it into a sun-synchronous polar orbit 447 miles above Earth’s surface.

Taiwan’s National Space Organization developed the Formosat-5 spacecraft. Its primary payload is an optical instrument that will provide 6.5-foot (2-meter) resolution panchromatic black & white images and 13-foot (4-meter) resolution multi-spectral color images.

According to an NSPO spokesman, these pictures will be used in a variety of applications including weather forecasting, disaster relief, national security, environmental monitoring, international technological exchanges, academic research and global humanitarian assistance.

The satellite also carries the Advanced Ionospheric Probe, a sensor for measuring ionospheric plasma concentrations, velocities, temperatures and ambient magnetic fields. Developed by Taiwan’s National Central University, the AIP will also detect seismic precursors associated with earthquakes.

Although this mission is a follow-on to Formosat-2, which was decommissioned in August 2016, Formosat-5 is the first space program in which Taiwan’s NSPO has taken full responsibility for spacecraft design, development, and system integration. Mission objectives include domestic promotion of space science research, enhancement of Taiwan’s self-reliant space technology capabilities, and continuing service to users of Formosat-2’s global imagery products.

Under cloudy skies, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carries the Formosat-5 remote-sensing satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

NSPO developed key components of the remote sensing instrument and spacecraft bus through the integration of resources from domestic partners. “Through Formosat-5, Taiwan will show the world that it is capable of independently building satellites,” Chang Ho-pen, director of the Formosat-5 project at NSPO, said.

SpaceX initially signed a contract with NSPO in 2010 to loft the lightweight spacecraft using a smaller and less expensive Falcon 1 booster.

However in 2011, due to low demand from the small-satellite business sector, the company halted production of the Falcon 1 to concentrate on development of the more capable Falcon 9 series. In order to honor the contract with NSPO, SpaceX agreed to launch Formosat-5 on a Falcon 9 at the original price quoted for the Falcon 1. Plans to make up the difference by carrying a second payload for another customer were scrapped after SpaceX suffered additional setbacks involving the losses of a Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft in 2015. The following summer, the company lost a second Falcon 9 in a launch pad explosion during ground tests.

Despite both the delays and potential questions regarding the Falcon’s reliability, Taiwan opted to continue with SpaceX rather than seek out another launch service provider. The company is expected to show a net loss for this mission, mitigated somewhat by successful recovery of the Falcon’s reusable first stage following launch.

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