Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has hinted that the island’s new generation of satellites, the Formosat-7 constellation, will bolster national security on the strength of advanced antennae, sensors and cameras that can generate vast amounts of data for weather forecasting as well as reconnaissance. Formosa was the ancient Portuguese name given to Taiwan.

The Formosat-7 project is earmarked as the biggest Taiwan-US space technology collaboration, with the US contributing radio occultation solutions and radio frequency beacons among other technologies. The new satellites are designed to gauge weather and atmospheric conditions for national defense, emergency response and natural disaster relief operations, according to the island’s Central News Agency.

The Formosat-5 – Taiwan’s first locally-produced, remote sensing satellite units and the island’s first spacecraft to enter space, was catapulted into the Sun-synchronous orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base near Los Angeles in August 2017.

An assembly plant for the Formosat-7 satellites. Photo: Handout
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (center) inspected the island’s National Space Agency on Thursday. Photo: Handout

Now the seventh generation of the series, dubbed the world’s most accurate thermometer in space, is expected to collect three to four times more data than the Formosat-5 satellites.

The new satellites will be transported to the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the island’s flag carrier China Airlines. From there it will be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the world’s most powerful heavy-lift launch vehicle. A specific launch date has yet to be confirmed, with SpaceX blaming scheduling delays on unresolved technical issues.

The Taiwanese leader inspected the island’s National Space Organization on Thursday, one day after her mainland counterpart Xi Jinping gave a presidential namecheck to the team behind China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe and rover which marked man’s first ever successful mission to the dark side of the moon, in early January.

Taiwan has also set eyes on the moon in a future space program to launch a lunar probe that will put it among the ranks of countries that have sent spacecraft to the earth’s natural satellite.

Taiwan’s technological rivalry with China has thus entered a space age, despite the island not having its own launch site. Some observers also believe that delays to the Formosat-7’s space mission may be evidence of Beijing’s pull, as they say SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has to curry favor with Beijing for the sake of his Tesla factory in Shanghai.

The chief of Taiwan’s space agency also told reporters that SpaceX would not be the solo contractor and the agency would open an international tender for future launches.

Taiwan’s future space program also encompasses eight high-resolution remote sensing satellites as well as two synthetic aperture radar satellites.