Taiwan's space aspirations face regulatory roadblocks, geopolitical challenges

Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

A space industry veteran is spearheading Taiwan's homegrown rocket and satellite ambitions, navigating a complex web of geopolitics and technical challenges.

Dr. Chen Yensen, who had joined NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, is on a mission to propel Taiwan into the new space age. As the founder of TiSPACE, a vertically integrated space services company, Chen is leading the charge to develop Taiwan's indigenous rocket and satellite capabilities.

TiSPACE's three-pronged business strategy encompasses rocket manufacturing and launch services, aerospace component production for international clients, and the emerging hydrogen energy sector. While the rocket program faces regulatory hurdles in Japan and Australia, Chen remains optimistic about the company's long-term prospects.

Credit: TiSpace

Credit: TiSPACE

"The main focus is on the rocket, but we're also developing our own low-Earth orbit satellites for communication and IoT," Chen explains. TiSPACE currently operates two rocket models, the Hapith and Kestrel series, with plans to transition to larger, liquid-fueled variants in the future to meet the demands of the burgeoning small satellite market.

Initially, the company had planned to conduct launches from Hokkaido, Japan. However, the launch process in the country has proven to be a slow and arduous endeavor, requiring TiSPACE to navigate a web of stringent approvals beyond just the launch permit, with the most likely timeframe for a successful launch being around July or August 2024.

This timeline poses an additional challenge, as the Hokkaido region typically transitions into the fall and winter seasons after this period, potentially leading to further delays. Should the approvals in Japan be prolonged, TiSPACE may have to wait until April-August 2025 to launch from the country, subject to favorable weather conditions.

Credit: TiSpace

Credit: TiSPACE

Simultaneously, TiSPACE is exploring opportunities in Australia as an alternative launch site. In the country, all launch facilities are currently undergoing rigorous environmental assessments to ensure the launches will not have a negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem. This environmental approval process is also expected to take several months to complete.

Unlike the sounding rockets planned for Hokkaido, the rockets TiSPACE intends to launch in Australia are significantly heavier and larger. TiSPACE's rocket of choice in Australia is the Kestrel 1, a two-stage hybrid rocket. Initially, the payload was envisioned to include experiments for local low-Earth orbit satellites, but the time constraints may require the company to explore alternative payload options.

The challenges, however, are multifaceted. Taiwan's limited land area and stringent environmental regulations have made it difficult to establish a suitable launch site. The company has found a potential solution in Adelaide, South Australia, where it is building a private launch facility and test site to circumvent the country's strict technology transfer rules.

"Australia has invited us to set up there," Chen says. "The tradeoff is that we can't bring the technology back to Taiwan."

Credit: TiSpace

Credit: TiSPACE

This dilemma highlights the broader geopolitical landscape that TiSPACE must navigate. The company's future success could hinge on the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election, as the Republican and Democratic parties hold vastly different views on Taiwan's autonomy.

"If the Republicans win, there's a chance Taiwan could get the green light to develop its own launch capabilities," Chen notes. "But with the Democrats, it's the same old story - we have to play by their rules."

Despite the hurdles, TiSPACE sees tremendous growth potential in the low-Earth orbit satellite sector, with frequent replacement cycles. Chen believes Taiwan's dominance in semiconductor manufacturing and specialized aerospace components could give the company a competitive edge as a supplier.

"We need to first establish ourselves as a reliable supplier of parts and subsystems," Chen says. "The next step is to move up the value chain and develop our own branded products."

TiSPACE's other key challenge is the lack of testing opportunities due to regulatory constraints, which has slowed the company's progress compared to players like SpaceX. "We are lacking in test flights," Chen laments.

Credit: TiSpace

Credit: TiSPACE

In terms of regional competition, Chen sees both opportunities and threats. While countries like Indonesia and Thailand have shown interest in developing their own space programs, South Korea stands out as a formidable rival, having invested heavily in its national space efforts.

"The progress in South Korea is the fastest," Chen acknowledges. "The whole country is behind their space program, and the funding is on a completely different scale compared to Taiwan."

When it comes to China, Chen recognizes the country's technical prowess in space technologies but notes that their approach is more traditional and conservative. "They are good at stable launches, but their payload capacity is much lower than SpaceX," he says. "The new private companies in China are trying to catch up with reusability, but they have a long way to go."

Joseph Chou, the Director of Federal Policy at 7StarLake, sheds light on the limitations posed by Taiwan's Space Development Act. He explains that current regulations confine research rocket launches to scientific purposes, creating a disconnect between research and industry demands. Chou argues that for Taiwan to industrialize its space sector, it must align its technology, regulations, and market focus with international standards.

Chou sees potential for Taiwan to develop crucial technologies for industries such as aerospace equipment, communication satellites, and drones for communication relays, all of which can be considered part of the space-related sector. He notes that TiSPACE is currently the only company in Taiwan engaged in rocket launches, with much of its work being experimental in nature. Chou emphasizes the importance of investing in this sector, as it will drive technological advancements. He believes Taiwan's strong capabilities in electronics manufacturing could give it a competitive edge in this industry.

However, Chou cautions that integrating into the supply chain of established industries is just one aspect of industrialization. The true know-how and control come from leading and developing the industry independently.

Credit: TiSpace

Credit: TiSPACE

TiSPACE has a current capital of NT$800 million(US$24.6 million), entirely from Taiwanese shareholders. The company has reached its B-round of funding and aims to go public by the time of its C-round. Chen expresses cautious optimism about TiSPACE's potential for an IPO within the next five years, contingent on the successful launch of its rockets.

As TiSPACE navigates the regulatory landscapes of Japan and Australia, the company's ability to overcome these challenges will be crucial in its quest to establish a foothold in the global space industry.