Taiwan has scrapped a plan to develop and trial indigenous launch rockets, which was previously included in the island’s space exploration program for the next decade, after Washington expressed concerns.

Taiwanese newspapers revealed that Washington, while pledging continued support for the island to launch more advanced satellites, sensors and space telescopes, began to dissuade the island’s officials and aerospace engineers when the latter flirted with the idea of building new rockets so that some payloads would no longer have to be transported to the US for launching.

Taiwan was told that these new rockets could put the island into direct conflict with China as related technologies could easily be weaponized, giving Beijing an excuse to mount more drills and circumnavigations targeting the self-ruled island.

It is understood that Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen had been a staunch supporter of the idea until she learned of Washington’s objection to the development of launch rockets as it could be seen as a potential attempt to build weapons.

Taiwan is not without the talent and capacity to build such rockets, according to military observers, as the island has long been developing medium- to long-range surface-to-air missiles for its military.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology has vowed that the trek to space will not be hampered even after the rocket plan is dropped, as the island aims to launch at least one satellite each year over the next decade.

The Formosat-7 weather satellite prior to it being transported to Kennedy Space Center for launch aboard Falcon Heavy. Handout.
The first Formosat-7 satellite was launched atop a Space X rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at the end of last month. Photo: Handout

Since 1991, Taiwan has only launched five satellites, all with the help from the US, including the Formosat-5, Taiwan’s first satellite developed and built with entirely domestic talent, launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California on August 25, 2017.

One highlight is the six-satellite Formosat-7 constellation for remote-sensing and weather forecasting that was put into orbit at the end of last month from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though the largest scientific collaboration between Taiwan and the US had been marred by glitches and repeated delays.

Taiwanese officials also confirmed that they would enter into a memorandum of understanding with SpaceX, which has emerged as the solo launch contractor for the island.

The third space program for the period between 2019 to 2028 has been allocated a budget of NT$25.1 billion (US$805 million) to focus on developing high-resolution and ultra-high-resolution optical remote-sensing satellites as well as synthetic aperture radar satellites.

The program has identified these satellites, designed especially for ionospheric observations pertinent to weather observation and forecasting, communication and defense applications, as Taiwan’s niche in the global space industry.

The island also aims to help other countries design, assemble and test instruments and payloads at its labs built to simulate space conditions.

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