The need for a launch vehicle development organization: Learning from Brazil’s experience
by Ajey Lele
|Since its beginning, this project has faced financial and technological challenges. It’s obvious that the ongoing political turmoil in Ukraine likely played a role towards Brazil’s decision as well.|
Recently, Brazil has decided to abandon a project for a satellite launch system, Cyclone-4, that it has been working on for more than a decade with the government of Ukraine. This project started in 2003 with an arrangement that Ukraine would develop a launch vehicle and Brazil would offer launch site facilities at the Alcântara Launch Center. Geography is in favor of Brazil for undertaking satellite launches. The Alcântara launch center is situated in northeastern Brazil, about two degrees south of the Equator. The earth spins fastest here so less fuel is required for launches. For the Cyclone-4 project, Brazil was to invest more than US$300 million (significant investments have already happened) with an understanding that, at least for the first 20 years, no profits would be earned.
Since its beginning, this project has faced financial and technological challenges. It’s obvious that the ongoing political turmoil in Ukraine likely played a role towards Brazil’s decision as well. Interestingly, Brazil was one of the first countries to recognize Ukraine as an independent nation in 1991. There are many people with Ukrainian origin living in Brazil. Also, Brazilian investments into the Ukrainian Football Premier League are well-known. All this indicates that Brazil has taken this decision based on the cost-benefit merits of the case. Brazil also has good relations with Russia and has established a major trade and economic partnership with them. Brazil is also hosting stations supporting the Russian navigation satellite system, GLONASS.
Nevertheless, the unstable Russian-Ukrainian relations reduces Ukraine’s ability to complete the project. There is some dependence of Ukraine on Russian space industry, in regards to the supply of hardware. Cyclone-4 is not considered to be an environmently friendly launch vehicle. Kazakhstan was not ready to provide launching facilities from Baikonur for this rocket, owing to issues concerning the fuel it uses.
There appears to be some commercial calculations as well behind cancelling the Cyclone-4 deal. Its projected payload capability is no more than 1,700 kilograms to geostationary orbit. This could attract only limited customers and the project may thus not become economically viable.
Brazil has witnessed some failures in its own development of satellite launch systems. Their satellite-launching rocket VLS-1, has been under development since 1979. The rocket had failures with its first two launches. During preparations for its third launch on August 22, 2003, the rocket exploded on the launch pad, killing 21 people. Further development of the vehicle has taken a long time, but the VLS-1 (V-04) prototype that is currently under development could to be launched in near future. This rocket is expected to carry a payload of 200 to 400 kilograms to polar orbit. There is German involvement in this project.
|Brazil’s case is a typical episode that demonstrates that how “rocket science” could be the most difficult discipline today.|
Brazil is also partnering Russia to develop a new family of next-generation launch vehicles. Five new launch pads are being build as part of this project called Southern Cross. Under this project five different rockets are to be developed by using the technology similar to the Russian Angara vehicle and liquid-propellant engines. The first rocket launch could happen around 2022. Now, with Brazil withdrawing from the joint venture with Ukraine for the development of Cyclone-4, Russia has shown additional keenness to work with Brazil to develop their new space centers and also Cyclone rockets for launches.
Brazil’s case is a typical episode that demonstrates that how “rocket science” could be the most difficult discipline today. While the technological competence of some states have increased considerably, other countries like Brazil are still struggling with rocket technology. In 2014, Brazil successfully hosted the Football World Cup and is now gearing towards hosting the Olympics in 2016. However, a country able to organize such major global events has yet to successfully develop its own launch vehicles even after making determined efforts for more than two decades. Now, the question is, should a country like Brazil keep on investing in rocket science or look for other alternatives?
Brazil may have few options after ending the Ukraine deal. With Russia they already have a collaboration in place. However, it is important to note that Russian space program has witnessed some major failures over last few years, including a Proton launch failure days ago. Russia is also not able fulfill some of its international commitments in the space area. For example, Russia was to undertake a joint Moon mission with India (Chandrayan II) in 2014 but withdrew from this project. For Brazil, the other option could be to look at China for assistance.
In recent years, few nations apart from Brazil have invested in developing satellite launching platforms. What could be the future for all these countries with proven (but nascent) launching capability or the ones attempting to achieve spacefaring status? Would a simple bilateral collaboration allow them to leapfrog in this field? Is it worth for them to keep on attempting to gain spacefaring status, which actually would have very limited relevance, and would they remain as third or fourth rung space powers?
In the early 1960s, the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) was established. Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands were the members of this organization and Australia was an associate member. A three-stage rocket called Europa was developed and the launch site was in Woomera, Australia initially, and later moved to Kourou, in French Guiana. Subsequently, this program became part of the new European Space Agency. Initially, few launches were successful under this program, but over time the program matured.
In the 21st century, does the idea of nations coming together to jointly undertake launch vehicle development hold any merit?
|Based on Brazil’s experience, it could be worth considering the concept of getting several interested nations together for the development of a launcher development organization.|
Since there was a geopolitical clarity in general about European cooperation, it must have been relatively easy to develop ELDO during the 1960s. Today, various multilateral groupings are being established where there is a commonality of interests, not necessarily based on geography, culture, or similar factors. There are multilateral organizations in place where different nations have joined hands to forward their economic, political, and strategic agendas. Science and technology is one arena where states with common interests have come together to develop a specific project.
Based on Brazil’s experience, it could be worth considering the concept of getting several interested nations together for the development of a launcher development organization. What could be possible attributes for such grouping?
In recent years, three nations have succeeded in attaining the status of spacefaring states: Iran (2009), North Korea (2012), and South Korea (2013). These states are expected to upgrade their launching capabilities: for example, South Korea is planning to launch its next rocket, the KSLV-2, by the end of the decade. Apart from these countries, Indonesia is also keen to develop an independent space launch program for launching small satellites into low Earth orbit. The first launch of their indigenous rocket under development called RPS-420/Pengorbitan-1 was to take place by 2014, however, this project appears to have missed the deadline. Indonesia also has a development plan for a launch site called Morotai Spaceport. The island of Morotai, being close to the Equator, allows economical launches.
Broadly, development of launch vehicles continues to remain a challenge for some, even as a few others have gained a significant amount of expertise in this field. Demonstration of technological capabilities for the purposes of power projection has limited interest in the 21st century. Satellite launches have also been used as a mechanism for strategic signaling (partial demonstration of their missile launching capabilities) by some nations. In the post-Cold War era, does the “glamour” behind power projection by exhibiting technological competence continues to remain relevant?
Many states in the world are keen to augment their access to satellite data. Many of them have technological and economic limitations but are interested in access to space assets for purposes of socioeconomic development. For example, according to a new Euroconsult report, the Latin American Earth observation market is growing rapidly. The data market in Latin America is valued at $145 million in 2014, and the forecast 2024 projects it growing to $355 million in a decade. Naturally, this could require a significant number of additional satellite launches.
There is a need for like-minded states to join hands and create a launcher development program. There is an opportunity for countries like India with proven launch capabilities to take a lead towards the creation of such an organization. There could be scientific, social, economic, and geopolitical benefits from its development. More importantly, it could be a win-win proposal for all the partners in the program.
Among the new members of the spacefaring club, India could join hands with South Korea. Two other members could be Brazil and Indonesia. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also making significant investments in the space sector. They even have announced their ambition to reach Mars within a decade. This energy-rich country can make major financial and technical contributions towards such project.
India has already established itself in the global launch market in the two-ton variety of satellites. However, India is yet to complete development of a vehicle to launch satellites to geostationary orbit weighing four tons or more. It may take a few more years for India to establish itself in the heavy-lift commercial satellite launch market.
Today, there is a growing market in the small satellite sector, essentially for remote sensing purposes, and large satellite sector for communications. India is known to offer cost-effective services in the space arena. India is in the process of commercializing its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle system. With more international investments, India could help many other nations launch their satellites. If India, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, and the UAE cooperate, it could allow rocket launches from multiple sites.
|There is an opportunity for countries like India with proven launch capabilities to take a lead towards the creation of such an organization.|
Politically, all these five nations have excellent relations among themselves. Together, all these states together can afford to make reasonable financial investments towards such a project and can also engage their private industry. Technologically, the respective space agencies from these states would have to evolve a model to ensure that their infrastructure, expertise, and research facilities could be placed to the best possible use. Additional nations also could join such a grouping.
The idea suggested above is crude in many respects. Such major project would have its own set of challenges. There could be problems at various stages, from scientific priorities to resources allocation to organizational structure. However, some of these nations have strengths in certain fields of space technologies, while some have geographical advantages, and together they can develop a joint program for launching satellites.