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Scientists fear wheel loss could cripple satellite

If the malfunction is caused by a hardware failure, there might be no way to repair it, leaving Taiwan dependent on other nations for months

A potential hardware failure on FORMOSAT-2 might cause the nation to lose its first locally developed Earth observation satellite, the National Space Organization (NSPO) said yesterday.

Two of the satellite’s reaction wheels, which are used to rotate and position it, are malfunctioning, so it cannot properly conduct observation or take pictures, NSPO Director Chang Guey-shin (張桂祥) said.

The satellite had made do with three reaction wheels since it lost one in 2013, and the NSPO received abnormal signals from the FORMOSAT-2 on Tuesday last week, which indicated that another reaction wheel had malfunctioned, Chang said.

“At least three properly functioning reaction wheels are needed to control the satellite. The possibility of repair is low if the fault was caused by hardware failure. There would be a better chance of being able to fix the malfunction if it was the electronic interface that went wrong. However, preliminary analysis suggested that hardware failure might be the cause,” he said.

The satellite was put in “safe mode,” and its missions were suspended pending further analysis and repair attempts.

It will take two or three weeks for experts to analyze the problems and propose solutions.

“The satellite’s condition was more stable than a few days ago. We feared that the FORMOSAT-2 might lose power because its solar panels did not point to the sun accurately. However, the problem was fixed, and we have more time to understand the reaction wheel problems,” Chang said.

“If the satellite cannot be repaired and has to be decommissioned, there would be no Taiwan-made satellite orbiting the Earth for a few months until FORMOSAT-5 is launched. The launch is expected to take place in California in autumn, but the date remains uncertain,” he said.

During the window period in which the nation might not have any functioning satellite, Taiwan would have to ask for international assistance in satellite monitoring in the event of a natural disaster, National Applied Research Laboratories’ Wang Jough-tai (王作臺) said.

FORMOSAT-2 was launched in May 2004, and it has taken 2.55 million pictures of the planet’s surface, each of which covers an area four times the size of Taiwan.

The satellite provided valuable images for scientific research, environmental monitoring, natural disaster prevention and evaluation, urban planning and other applications for the past 12 years.

However, it was designed to last only five years, so the malfunction was not unexpected, Wang said.