Aerospace Science and Technology Research Center (ASTRC), NCKU A Unique Aerospace Science and Technology Experiment Site

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National Cheng Kung University ( NCKU) is an important academic research center in southern Taiwan. Its Aerospace Science and Technology Research Center (ASTRC), located in the Guiren campus, is the only aerospace science and technology experiment site among universities in Taiwan. The ASTRC has established cooperation and communication with research institutions in Russia, which has an advanced aerospace industry, making it the pioneer of conducting exchanges with Russia in the aerospace field.

The Global Affairs and Science Engagement (GASE) team conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Kung-Ming Chung, Director of the ASTRC, during which he introduced key experimental equipment presented in the center, such as the transonic tunnel and the shock tunnel. In addition, Director Chung explained how the ASTRC promoted industry–government–university–institute cooperation, and served as the link between academic research and industrial technology upgradation.

ASTRC Performs Fundamental Aerospace and Defense Research

The history of the ASTRC has coincided with the autonomous development of aerospace technology in Taiwan. In the 1980s, the Taiwanese government initiated autonomous defense research and independently developed the domestic fighter IDF. In addition, the government promoted the cultivation and recruitment of key scientific and technological talents. In response to these policies, multiple universities, such as NCKU, National Taiwan University, National Tsing Hua University, and National Chiao Tung University, introduced relevant aerospace departments and courses. Among them, NCKU established an aerospace research institute and constructed a comprehensive aerospace science and technology experiment site in the Guiren campus to support the development of domestic aerospace and defense industries.

In the 1990s, NCKU established the ASTRC, based on the existing aerospace experiment site. In response to evolving policies, the ASTRC’s focus also expanded from national defense to aerospace-related fields. Since then, the ASTRC has carried out preliminary research and cultivated aerospace science and technology talents for the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology and the Aerospace Science and Technology Development Center.

The ASTRC’s key equipment includes a transonic tunnel, combustion laboratory, low-speed wind tunnel with dynamic simulation, Bi-propulsion laboratory, flight control laboratory, structure and material laboratory, spray-forming laboratory, communication payload laboratory, a ground tracking, telemetry, and command center for the FORMOSAT satellites, and a liquid rocket laboratory. The comprehensive list of equipment likens the ASTRC to a mini version of the complete aerospace industry chain.

ASTRC’s transonic tunnel and combustion laboratory equipment are unique in academia

With advanced equipment, such as the transonic tunnel and combustion test cells, which was introduced at a cost of US $8 million when the center was launched, the ASTRC can research and develop key technologies, such as aircraft systems, flight safety, and critical components of the aerospace industry. Wind tunnels are special tubes that, upon powering up, create an airflow with an adjustable speed that can be used to test the aerodynamic performance of an actual object or a scale model. Wind tunnels are divided into high-speed and low-speed ones, according to the speed of the airflow. NCKU has built three wind tunnels, i.e., transonic, low-speed, and shock wind tunnels. Among them, the transonic wind tunnel is a blow-down tunnel equipped with air compressors having a total power of 50 atm/46.4 scmm, and an air reservoir with a total capacity of 50 atm/160m3. Each airflow test can last up to 30 seconds at a frequency of 3–4 times a day.

The most common wind tunnel in Taiwan is the low-speed wind tunnel, which, in addition to performing dynamic/static flight simulation, can be used to test the aerodynamic performance of the aircraft and the wind resistance of various products. Director Chung explained that Taiwan is located in the typhoon zone, and the ASTRC can assist private units in dynamically simulating the performance of various product models, such as buildings, bridges, and traffic signs, under different typhoon conditions.

Alternatively, the ASTRC’s multi-purpose combustion laboratory can not only provide a stable flow field according to the specific requirement, but also export the emission results of the sample. During the test, multiple variables, such as pressure, flow rate, temperature, and chemical characteristics, are monitored and recorded by computers, which can then serve as the basis for subsequent interpretation and analysis.

ASTRC pioneers exchange with Russia in the aerospace industry

Since 1994, NCKU has successively established close cooperation with the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology, St. Peter’s University, and Moscow University. In addition to regular exchanges and visits between lecturers and researchers, NCKU and its partners have also jointly held seminars and carried out research projects, during which good relationships have been formed.

The Russian Academy of Sciences is not only Russia’s national academic institution, but also one of the most important research institutions in the world. Director Chung said that Russia is renowned for its research in the aerospace industry and basic sciences, and substantial attention had been dedicated to the research of wind energy. He also mentioned that Taiwan has formed a strong research connection with Russia in aerospace satellite and engineering science, based on a deep friendship that was established more than 20 years ago.

In recent years, the ASTRC has also carried out research projects on sounding rockets and microsatellites, and facilitated the joint construction of microsatellites between Taiwan and Russia. A team from NCKU also participated in the QB50 project sponsored by the European Union, during which it independently developed a 2-kg Phoenix CubeSat satellite. In 2017, not only was the satellite launched to an orbit with an altitude of 400 km, but the communication between the CubeSat and the ground station was also successfully established, marking a new milestone for Taiwan’s aerospace industry. A member of the Phoenix CubeSat project, French student Jordan Fang, has even launched a startup space company in Taiwan.

LEOS shows a promising future with demands for self-driving cars and the Internet of Things

In the past, owing to the high cost, the construction of satellites was mostly dominated by governments. Director Chung believes that with the development of antenna and radio frequency front-end technologies as well as the technological advancement of various hardware equipment, batteries, and processor components, the building cost of satellites would drop year by year.

Low-earth-orbit satellites are the most important component in the world’s high-speed transmission network. Director Chung stated that as the number of low-earth-orbit satellites increase, the blind spots of 5G communication would be compensated by the satellite network, thereby improving the performance of the Internet of Things and self-driving cars. Taiwan’s mature semiconductor, information and communication technologies, and precision machinery industries are the foundation of the commercialization of ground communication via low-earth-orbit satellites. Once integrated with ground systems in the future, satellites will create a successful supply chain for the Internet of Things, electric vehicles, and aerospace satellite industries. 

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