Taiwan launches first locally built satellite to monitor weather

A screen grab from a video showing the Formosat-5 riding on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Thursday.
A screen grab from a video showing the Formosat-5 riding on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Thursday.PHOTO: YOUTUBE/SPACEX

Taiwan's first locally built satellite has been launched into space, in what some analysts said could be a boost for the island's surveillance capabilities as well as its efforts to capture a slice of the burgeoning global space technology sector.

The Formosat-5 rode on a Falcon 9 rocket owned by private spaceflight company SpaceX, which blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on Thursday.

The NT$5.65 billion (S$254 million), 450kg mini-satellite, which will be used to collect data to evaluate the impact of natural disasters and monitor environmental changes on Earth, was designed and built from scratch by scientists and engineers from Taiwan's National Space Organisation.

It will be in orbit for the next five years, just like its predecessor, Formosat-2, which was decommissioned last year after 12 years, during which it mapped a series of major disasters in parts of Asia and Africa.

A top official of the Central Weather Bureau likened the Formosat-5 to a "giant digital camera" able to take clear images of Earth.

The head of the bureau's Weather Information Centre, Mr Cheng Chia-ping, said it could record changes before and after an earthquake or a typhoon, relay images of events such as flooding, landslides and mudslides, allowing for faster and better informed disaster prevention and response.

But some analysts said there could also be scope for military applications.

  • 450kg Weight of the mini-satellite.

Tamkang University national security expert Alexander Huang said while the Formosat-5 was not designed as a spy satellite, the images collected might help the military with its surveillance operations

"Besides civilian and peaceful purposes, we cannot exclude the possibility of military applications," said Dr Huang.

In a video clip, President Tsai Ing-wen said the successful launch represented a "big leap" in Taiwan's space technology and urged scientists to continue working to make more breakthroughs.

Earlier, in a Facebook post on Thursday, Ms Tsai said the launch "carried the skills and dreams of the Taiwanese people".

Formosat-5 is seen as the first tentative steps by Taiwan to venture into the global space technology sector which, according to the United States-based research organisation Space Foundation, was worth US$314 billion (S$426 billion) in 2013.

Taiwan's Central News Agency quoted American Institute in Taiwan chairman James Moriarty as saying yesterday's successful launch could present the possibility of future scientific collaborations between Taiwan and the US.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan launches first locally built satellite to monitor weather'. Print Edition | Subscribe