Brazil's renewed space programme should boost rural broadband and more

We take a look at Brazil’s space initiatives and what they might mean for the country

Despite continued delays of the launch of its first defence and communications satellite, Brazil has announced its intention to develop its own rockets by 2020. For Brazil, the focus is on extending its space programme to reap additional benefits. The Geostationary Satellite of Defence and Strategic Communications (SGDC) launch, which was initially scheduled for 21 March and then 22 March, is the first project of its kind led by Brazil's private sector and will “beam” broadband internet from an altitude of 36,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) to remote parts of the South American nation, according to Reuters.

The 5.8-tonne SGDC satellite will also offer military and government personnel secure communication channels. It forms part of a renewed effort to expand Brazil's long-standing aeronautics industry into space, with Embraer SA, the world's third-largest commercial plane maker, seeking to consolidate a local supply chain. Acquired by Telebras, the equipment has a Ka band, which will be used for strategic government communications and to expand broadband offerings in the country, especially in remote areas, and an X band, which corresponds to 30% of satellite capacity, for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces.

At the time of the launch Jose Raimundo Braga Coelho, president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) said in a statement: “We cannot guarantee Brazil’s sovereignty as long as our defence communications are being carried by other countries’ satellites. Brazil is a gigantic country and we need Brazilian satellites watching over it.”

Pedro Kaled, a mechanical engineer and technologist at the AEB, explains that the expanded program is in final phase of consolidation, with the launch of the first satellite stabilised by three axes developed mainly in Brazil and with the launch in 2018 of the first vehicle launcher of microsatellites developed in the country. “I believe that the next phase will be to strengthen the program, with greater independence of companies and less dependence on structural programs,” he says. “At the end of this consolidation phase, I see a strengthening phase, with less dependence on the public sector and greater dynamism of relations.”

Brazil’s interest in expanding its space programme despite setbacks is both political and scientific. Albert Goldson, Executive Director of Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC, a NYC-based boutique global advisory firm that provides international investment strategies and geopolitical security risk assessments, says that the Brazilian aerospace program is not only an extension of their aviation tradition and prowess, but also political with the purpose of joining such major players in the aerospace industry such as the US, China, France and Russia. “Aerospace is a small, elite group that gives Brazil enormous technical credibility and as a result greater participation in global scientific policy-making,” he adds.

The large South American country is well-placed for such initiatives, too. Prof. Frans G. von der Dunk, Othmer Professor of Space Law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that Brazil has the unique advantage of having a launching site almost on the equator – at Alcantara – which is for satellites destined for geostationary orbit, and due to orbital physics, allows launches to be as much as 30% cheaper in terms of fuel than those from Florida and even cheaper than those from Kourou in French Guiana. The initial launch of the new defence and communications satellite will take place from Kourou, however; the launch site itself has been controversial with protests having taken place.

French Guiana is an overseas territory of France and the protests have focused on what the locals describe as neglect by the French government. The territory’s economic woes have translated into high unemployment rates, high cost of living and increased crime. Protesters occupied the launch site and operations were suspended indefinitely in the week of the launch of the SGDC. The launch of the Ariane 5 rocket, which is to take the SGDC and a Korean communications satellite, was further hampered by a strike by workers for one of the subcontractors on the project.

“That is why Brazil has already for a number of years developed that launch site [Alcantara] including opening it up - in principle - to foreign service providers wishing to benefit from the advantageous geographical position,” von der Dunk says. In 2001, by way of Administrative Edict No. 27 of June 20th, the Brazilian government even made it possible for private operators, including foreign ones, to obtain licenses to launch from the launch site.

Von der Dunk says, though, that this has never been activated before, for several reasons. He explains that the development of the launch site suffered a terrible blow as a result of the disaster in August 2003, when 21 people were killed. “The relations between the US and Brazil became strained over technology control issues which meant the US would apply its technology export controls rigidly vis-a-vis anything destined for Brazil, and other domestic issues also prevented progress from being made,” he says, adding that Brazil tried to make up for that by state-to-state agreements with in particular China and the Ukraine.

In the former case, Chinese earth observation technology and in the latter case Ukrainian launcher technology was supposed to complement the Brazilian availability of a geographically very advantageous launch site, which led to some beneficial developments.

The beleaguered Ukraine co-operation agreement collapsed in 2015 when Brazil announced it was pulling out of the bilateral agreement after a decade. The project had sought to operate Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 rocket from Brazilian territory, but Petronio Noronha de Souza, the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) director of space policy and strategic investments told visitors to the Latin America Aero and Defence (LAAD) show in April 2015, that a formal announcement of the end of the agreement was imminent. At the time, Space News speculated that the announcement was the result of the ambitious 10-year space program launched in 2012 with a budget of 9.1 billion Brazilian reals ($3.2 billion), coming under pressure from the Brazilian economy’s own woes.

Von der Dunk says that the space sector is seen as one of the leading-edge technology sectors, meaning that huge and long-term investments are required but are – in the case of successes, which are however in a minority compared to the failures – also prone to allow for major technology breakthroughs.

“If Brazil would succeed in this respect, even if largely private-sector-driven, it might indeed bring major benefits to the country beyond the direct benefits of the communication satellite itself. It would re-establish Brazil at the forefront of technical development at least within Latin America, and to some extent perhaps even in a broader context,” he says.

Kaled stresses that while the Geostationary Satellite of Defence and Strategic Communications (SGDC) has not been launched yet, when it is, it will make internet available for the entire population, which is a very important example of the space program giving back part of the investment made to society. “In addition, through the TAP (Technology Absorption Program), several technicians from Brazilian public and private institutions were trained and through the ToT (transfer of technology), companies from the industrial base will receive technologies transferred by Thales Alenia Space; both initiatives strengthen the space program,” he adds.

The satellite construction agreement involved a broad process of absorption and transfer of technology, with the sending of 50 Brazilian professionals to the facilities of Thales Alenia Space, the company responsible for the construction of the equipment, in Cannes and Toulouse, France.

Kaled acknowledges the challenges inherent in such a program. “From the AEB point of view, I believe that the greatest challenge is to return to society, to create engaging projects that return investment to society, both in stabilising an industrial park that would generate jobs and in services generated through initiatives of the space programme,” he says. “From the standpoint of private initiative, the biggest challenge is the establishment of new markets and the beginning of serialised production of technologies that have been absorbed and developed in Brazil.”

For this to happen, Kaled says, there needs to be a technological lever, resulting in cutting-edge development nucleating spin-offs and nuclei of excellence that eventually generate innovation. He also emphasises the possibility of independence in the generation of the spatial products and autonomy to develop new projects. “With an active and participatory spatial program, more spatial initiatives can generate and develop economic sectors that cannot even be considered now, such as communication, smart city automation, precision agriculture, national and border security. It is a multitude of benefits that begin to emerge when the program is fully consolidated,” he says.