What's delaying Taiwan's LEO communication satellite program?

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: TASA

Taiwan's effort to build its own low Earth orbit (LEO) communication satellites has turned out to be harder than expected, as the country's electronics industry has long been geared toward making satellite ground equipment. Since 2019, the Taiwan Space Agency (TASA) has entered the third phase of the National Space Technology Long-Term Development program which is expected to last a decade. Alongside fostering the domestic design and production capability of six high-resolution optical remote sensing satellites, a key part of the program is to develop Taiwan's industrial capability to build Beyond 5G (B5G) communication satellites akin to Starlink.

In TASA's original planning, the first B5G satellite was to be launched in 2026, followed by another in 2028. TASA itself will design the satellite buses, while the payload designs were outsourced to the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). However, TASA has recently confirmed to DIGITIMES Asia that the payload design would require more time, thus the first B5G satellite payload would be procured from overseas suppliers through bidding. The bidding will begin in August 2024, and the launch of the first B5G satellite will be delayed to 2027. The second B5G satellite, the payload of which will still be supplied by ITRI, will stick to the 2028 launch schedule. As indicated by a TASA spokesperson, the payload capacity required by TASA is 20 times that of what ITRI can offer at this stage.

As indicated by Taiwan's legislature based on meeting minutes with members of Taiwan's National Science & Technology Council (NSTC) in April 2024, the third phase of the National Space Technology Long-Term Development program was originally scheduled to be completed by 2028, but will now be extended to 2031. Since the endeavor marks Taiwan's first effort to LEO communication satellite payload, bottlenecks remain to be overcome. TASA, accordingly, has to expand its lab testing capacity to accommodate the growing need to simulate extreme space environments, including procuring additional equipment such as the Compact Antenna Test Range (CATR). Furthermore, according to a report from the legislature, TASA has to conduct an extra round of manufacturing and verification to ensure the quality and functionality of overall circuit design and production (including the engineering and engineering development models), thus causing delays.

However, the report also indicated that ITRI has already completed testing its self-designed communication payload computer, power subsystem, and digital signal processing unit. Testing will continue for the RF front-end unit, including the phased array antenna, within the transmitter and receiver. It is expected that by the end of 2024, the engineering model and the first version of the satcom ground support equipment will be developed.