Taiwan Speeds Up Efforts To Develop Local ‘Starlink’ After Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

Ramish Zafar
The second-generation Starlink user terminal as visible on its website. Image: Starlink

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In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan has sped up its efforts to develop a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite network that is similar to SpaceX's Starlink, according to a fresh report. The plan is being headed by the region's National Space Center and the Ministry of Digital Affairs in partnership with the private sector to launch new satellites. Dubbed the "Taiwan version of the Starlink," the plan involves a host of different Taiwanese companies, including MediaTek, Jingpeng, Taiyang, and close to 40 other companies.

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As part of the plan, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institut will develop the first two satellites, which will then be upgraded to serve as the blueprint for the private sector to emulate. The aim is to establish 700 ground stations in Taiwan, as well as three stations abroad. These will reduce the reliance of the region's internet connectivity on subsea cables, and according to the report, the effectiveness of SpaceX's Starlink against Russian aggression in Ukraine has spurred these efforts.

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Satellite internet networks rely on three points to establish connectivity. The first of these is a user terminal that links with the satellites. The spacecraft then beam the user's data to ground stations which complete the link with internet servers.

The timeline of the plan aims to indigenously manufacture 70% of the satellites' components by 2023 end.  It is part of Taiwan's space development plan, the third phase of which was approved in 2019, with an investment of NT$25.1 billion over the course of a decade. Taiwan's space agency, TASA, has already partnered up with the private sector to test communications downlink capabilities. These are part of the third phase of the space development plan, and Taiwan launched its first satellite, the FORMOSAT-5 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in 2017.

This was followed by the launch of six FORMOSAT-7 satellites on the Falcon Heavy in 2019 - with the project carried out in partnership with the U.S. Space Force and the bulk of their components manufactured in Taiwan by Taiwanese companies.

Taiwan's TRITON (FORMOSAT-7R) satellite on the right in November 2022 as the President of the island's legislature, the Executive Yuan, Mr. Su Tseng-chang, visits the National Space Organization (NSPO), to mark the satellite's full function testing phase. Image: TASA

Taiwan is currently developing the TRITON (FORMOSAT-7R) satellite, which is planned to launch on an Arianespace rideshare mission. TRITON is an Earth observation satellite destined for the low Earth orbit (LEO) that will aim to study typhoons, wave heights and sea wind speed to enable the island to better deal with natural events. While officials had initially stated that 87% of the satellite's components would be made in Taiwan, this figure has now been toned down to 82% - still higher than the 78% for the FORMOSATs 5 and 7.

The President of Taiwan's legislative body Su Tsen-chang visited the National Space Organization in November 2022 as the new spacecraft's full function testing began. At the event, he drew parallels with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and stated that the space industry would become another "sacred mountain" to protect the island. TSMC is called a sacred mountain in Taiwan due to its strategic importance in the global semiconductor manufacturing supply chain, as the company is the world's largest contract chip manufacturer responsible for providing big ticket companies such as Apple with processors and other products.

Taiwan has a buyoant space industry, with a host of different firms providing technologies such as space solar panels, metal oxide semiconductor sensors, landing gears, lubrication, signal transmitters, wafers and structural materials. A key focus of the space agency is to develop electronics testing capability on the island as well, as the government aims to enable the local industry to manufacture up to 60% of all electronic components used by satellites by the end of this year.

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