The report by Taipei Times (updated: 01/28/2015)

Scientists tout advanced ionospheric spacecraft

‘COSMIC CUBE’:The advanced ionospheric probe is lighter than its peers and more efficient in taking samples of positive cations, local researchers say

By Sean Lin / Staff reporter

A team of scientists from National Central University yesterday unveiled what they said was the world’s most compact and precise advanced ionospheric probe (AIP), which is to be installed on FORMOSAT-5 — the nation’s first independently developed optical remote-sensing satellite — and deployed for weather and earthquake forecasting.

The device, nicknamed the “Cosmic Cube” by the researchers for its ability to measure “enormous cosmic powers,” is just 10cm3 in size and weighs 4kg — 0.6kg lighter than the ion velocity meter developed in the US and 10kg lighter than its predecessor, project leader Chao Chi-kuang (趙吉光) said.

The reduced weight in the satellite’s payload lowers the cost for the space mission by about NT$30 million (US$957,700), equivalent to the subsidy provided by the National Applied Research Laboratories to build the device, Chao said.

The probe can take 8,192 samples of positive cations — ions with positive electrical charges — per second when operating at full capacity, compared with 160 samples per second for the European Space Agency’s DEMETER spacecraft, Chao said.

One of the instrument’s most prominent features is its unibody sieve, which is made of pure gold to achieve optimal potential energy structure while sifting out ions suitable for measurements, Chao said. This increases the accuracy of measurements while greatly reducing the pollution produced by electrodes compared with sieves made of stainless steel.

As ions travel at 800km per second in the ionosphere, the AIP’s high sampling rate shortens the intervals between samples, thereby enabling more accurate measurements of the ion density, velocity and temperature, while circumventing potential damage space weather could have on satellites and communication systems used on fishing boats and military vessels.

It can also be deployed for forecasting earthquakes, which are known to be preceded by a phenomenon involving fluctuations in ion concentration levels 24 hours to 10 days before they hit an area.

Citing samples conducted in the waters off Yilan County on March 31, 2002 — two days before a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit Taiwan — National Space Organization chief scientist Liu Jann-yeng (劉正彥) said that ion density in the ionosphere above Yilan dropped to abnormal levels, which in turn caused plasma density in the ionosphere to fall as well.

“The time at which anomalies in ion density preceding earthquakes are detected varies from one place to another. For example, those detected from Taiwan range from one to five days and are characterized by sudden drops. Detections from China range from one to six days, while detections from Japan take the form of a positive anomaly and usually take place one to three days before an earthquake,” Liu said.

Chao said he started research on the probe about 20 years ago, when he was still a junior in college.

To pass down the legacy of Taiwan’s aeronautics education, he said the university has teamed up with the Taoyuan Government and National Applied Research Laboratories to offer courses on general aeronautics to all 11 municipal high schools in the city.

Outstanding students will be given an opportunity to visit satellite launch sites in the US, with all fees covered by the municipal government, he said.