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NSRC 2023

Brazil’s Alcântara spaceport is currently underutilized, but the country hopes to change that through partnerships with Russia and Ukraine. (credit: CLA)

Will a new space power rise along the Atlantic?

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Within a decade, a new spaceport could rise above the tropical vegetation beside the gleaming Atlantic Ocean. Brand new rockets will thunder aloft from state-of-the-art launch complexes, carrying almost any type of satellite into whatever orbit is required. Revenues will flow into the coffers of new companies.

Cape Canaveral, in the NewSpace era?

No. This one’s just a little further south. And it’s not the one in French Guiana.

The spaceport is named Alcântara. And if Brazil can achieve its space goals for it over the next decade, it could become one of the busiest launch sites in the world, and one of the most lucrative. Located just two degrees from the equator, Alcântara is ideal for launching geosynchronous orbit communications satellites.

The Alcântara Launch Center currently has a severe shortage of one essential thing: rockets.

It’s a vision of a great future in space for an emerging nation. But, before it can join the ranks of the world’s space powers, Brazil will have to greatly expand its small and fragmented space program, train a new generation of engineers and technicians, and successfully execute on a series of projects with foreign nations. And it will need to spend money—lots of money.

The Ukrainian connection

The Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, or CLA, in Portuguese) currently has a severe shortage of one essential thing: rockets. The nation has sounding rockets, but nothing that can send a payload into orbit. Brazil is remedying this shortfall by undertaking cooperative programs with Ukraine and Russia to build six rockets that could launch everything from small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) to heavy geosynchronous communications satellites.

The Ukrainian joint venture involves launching the Cyclone-4 rocket from a new launch site in Alcântara. The booster is an upgraded version of a Soviet-era Cyclone-3 rocket that was built in the Ukraine. It will be capable of lofting payloads weighing 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) into LEO and 1,700 kilograms (3,700 pounds) to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

The effort has seen many delays over the years as the global economic crisis created funding problems. In addition, Brazil had to identify a launch site that did not impinge upon the lands of native peoples.

Ukrainian Space Agency head Yuriy Alekseyev said recently that more funding is required to complete the project. “Today around $280 million has been spent and around $260 million more will be required. Unfortunately, Brazil has invested $50 million more in the project compared to Ukraine,” he said.

When the rocket will make its inaugural flight is uncertain. Officially, the date still remains 2012. However, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was recently quoted as saying that partners are looking to complete a new launch complex at Alcântara by 2014.

The Russian angle

Brazil’s collaboration with Russia, known as Southern Cross, began back in 2005. It is a much more ambitious effort than the Cyclone-4 program, involving the creation of a family rockets capable of lifting payloads of 400 kilograms to four tons into orbit. The rockets in the Southern Cross family are named:

  • Alpha (light)
  • Beta (light)
  • Gamma (light) – >1 ton to GEO
  • Delta (medium) – 1.7 tons to GEO
  • Epsilon (heavy) – 4 tons to GEO.
The labor force is one of the biggest things holding back Brazil’s space program. The country has a small, aging workforce of about 3,000 people that will see almost a complete turnover during the next decade.

The first project in the partnership is Alpha, which is an upgraded version of Brazil’s Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 (VLS-1). Brazil worked on the four-stage solid fuel rocket in the early 2000s; however, it put the effort on hold for several years after an explosion killed 21 workers in 2003. Under the revived program, the Russians are helping the Brazilian Space Agency (Agência Espacial Brasileira, or AEB) with improving the reliability of its solid fuel engines. Two of VLS-1’s stages will be replaced with liquid-fueled ones.

The heavier Southern Cross rockets will be based on Russia’s new Angara rocket and include the RD-191 engine in the first stage. The second stage will be based on the engine for Russia’s Molniya rocket, with the third stage consisting of the upgraded VLS-1 (Alpha) rocket.

One advantage of the Southern Cross rockets is that they will use relatively benign fuels. The Ukrainian Cyclone-4 uses toxic fuels (nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine), which is one of the reasons that these rockets no longer are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Like the Cyclone-4 collaboration, the Southern Cross program appears to have suffered some delays over the past few years. Online research indicates that the Alpha project is running behind schedule. And it appears that an earlier prediction of completing the entire Southern Cross program has slipped about two years to 2022.

The precise causes of the delays are unclear, although it’s likely that the global economic recession has had an impact on progress. The Russians also have suffered years-long delays on its own Angara rocket program upon which the Brazilian rocket series is based.

On the Brazilian side, the program involves AEB and the General-Command for Aerospace Technology (Comando-Geral de Tecnologia Aerospacial, CTA), which is the national military research center for spaceflight and aviation and part of the Brazilian Air Force.

The challenges

Brazil also needs to make major changes on its side. Brazil’s small, fragmented space effort is hamstrung by a shortage of resources, money and talent. “We have big challenges for the development of these vehicles. We have mastered the technology of liquid propellant, for example,” said AEB President Marco Antonio Raupp.

Raupp, who took over in March, has an ambitious plan to wants triple the space agency’s budget from 300 to 900 million reals (US$185 to 555 million), streamline management, boost private sector involvement, and educate and train more aerospace workers.

If the nation can execute on its priorities, Brazil could take its place among the world’s leading space powers.

The labor force is one of the biggest things holding back Brazil’s space program. The country has a small, aging workforce of about 3,000 people that will see almost a complete turnover during the next decade. AEB finds it difficult to attract the next generation of engineers and scientists into a space program with a small budget.

“Unattractive salaries, lack of public tenders for the renewal of the framework, discontinuation of actions generate low motivation and self-esteem among professionals and are the causes of this deficit,” said Fernando Moraes, president of the Union of Civil Servants in Science and Technology (SindCT).

To deal with its weak workforce, the Brazilian government wants to award scholarships to 75,000 students to study abroad over the next four years under the Brazil Without Borders program. About 30,000 students are set to go to the United States and 10,000 apiece to England and Germany. Officials also have invited Canada and Belgium to participate in the program, which features student exchanges in both directions.

Raupp’s organizational changes include combining AEB and the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE) under a second single organization to better manage and coordinate space activities. He is also seeking to have private sector companies take a greater role in building hardware and managing projects in a manner similar to the way NASA operates.

Raupp believes the changes will be more efficient and help Brazil to catch up in space technology. “The development of the industry with innovation, competition, is one of the objectives of the policy,” he said recently.

However, the effort is facing opposition from SindCT, the union that represents AEB workers. SindCT President Moraes said a key concern is that private contractors will supplant space agency employees, who have long suffered from a lack of resources, low salaries, and poor morale. The union could seek an injunction against the move and hopes to also engage in a dialogue with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazil’s space program will be an interesting one to watch in the decade ahead. If the nation can execute on its priorities, it could take its place among the world’s leading space powers. But in the meantime, they’ve got a lot of work to do.