Published On: March 22, 2018

Brazil Enters Space Industry

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US companies eager to tap into the fast-growing market for low-cost satellite launches could become the first customers when Brazil’s Alcântara space center in the state of Maranhão opens as a commercial spaceport, executives and Brazilian officials said.

Aerospace titans Boeing and Lockheed Martin visited the Alcântara space center, which is located on a peninsula adjacent to the capital city of Maranhão, São Luis. The Brazilian space agency’s launch site is especially attractive to smaller firms because its location on the equator cuts fuel costs by one-third.

The market for launches of large geosynchronous satellites has solidified, and the Space Enterprise Council, which represents US industry from launch services to satellite manufacturers, has said the expanding micro-satellite sector could experience up to 600 launches for satellites under 110 pounds between now and 2022. Alcântara could capture 25 percent of that market, according to the council, which has said a US-Brazilian partnership would give both countries an edge in the fast-growing segment.

Alcântara Space Center

Alcântara Space Center

The cost of micro-satellites is a fraction of larger satellites options, making them increasingly important for GPS navigation, Earth imagery, surveillance, and internet communications. Still, Brazil’s aim of becoming a hot new hub in the space industry will depend on negotiating a technology safeguards agreement (TSA) with the United States to protect sensitive American space launch and satellite technology. Without it, no US rocket can blast off from Brazil.

Brazil wants to attract customers by marketing itself as the cheaper alternative to Kourou, the European spaceport in neighboring French Guiana, which mostly launches big satellites. Brazilian officials are hoping to complete a US TSA this year that would facilitate the opening of the commercial spaceport.

Last month, US and Brazilian government representatives, along with space companies from both countries, held a conference call with a White House official who was asked whether the Trump administration would agree to a TSA with Brazil. The safeguard accord could be ready this year if the US State Department gets negotiating permission, according to industry representatives.

Vector Launch test in Arizona

Vector Launch test in Arizona

Tucson, Arizona-based Vector Launch, which specializes in small rockets, appears eager to launch from the Brazilian site. The company wants to undercut big payload specialists like billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX by launching satellites one at a time on smaller rockets, cutting costs and wait time for clients.

“Our vision is to launch hundreds of Vector rockets into orbit to satisfy the growing market for micro-satellites,” said Vector Launch Vice President Alex Rodriguez, who made a December visit to Alcântara coordinated by Boeing.

Boeing Corporation, which chairs the Space Enterprise Council, is in talks to partner with Brazil’s Embraer SA, the world’s third-largest commercial airplane manufacturer and the main player in the Brazilian aerospace industry.

Satellite testing laboratory

Satellite testing laboratory

“We are closer to the equator and have an excellent site for launching micro-satellites,” said Brigadier Luiz Fernando Aguiar, coordinator of the Brazilian Air Force’s space program, comparing the Alcântara site with Kourou. Alcântara currently has radars, a runway, and a seaport to unload equipment, along with plenty of open land to store rockets and build a liquid oxygen plant if needed, he said.

A previous attempt at a US-Brazilian space partnership was abandoned in 2003 when the technology safeguards agreement faced resistance from the government of former President Lula and was thwarted by the Brazilian Congress. A new effort to sign a TSA treaty is expected to pass in the current Temer administration.

ir-de-barco-desde-sao-luis-e-a-forma-mais-rapida-de-chegar-a-cidade-de-alcantara-no-maranhao-1332960733683_615x300SpaceX was not represented on the visit to Alcântara and is not a member of the council, which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Viasat. After Brazilian officials last month said SpaceX was on the trip, the company said that was incorrect and that it was not interested in launching from Brazil.

Viasat last month entered the satellite broadband business in Brazil with an agreement to use capacity on the country’s 5-tonne SGDC-1 geostationary satellite launched last year from Kourou and operated by Brazilian state-run telecom company Telebras. Brazil abandoned plans to build its own rocket to put large satellites in orbit after an explosion and fire in 2003 at Alcântara.

 

 

[This article was edited from The Christian Science Monitor]

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