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Heaven cannot wait

Redefinition of the space program aims to speed up the launching of satellites

The Cyclone-4 rocket, a partnership arrangement with Ukraine that is at a standstill

ABR E DIVULGAÇÃO The Cyclone-4 rocket, a partnership arrangement with Ukraine that is at a standstillABR E DIVULGAÇÃO

The restructuring of the Brazilian space program has been put on the country’s agenda. The configuration of the current program, in which the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), headquartered in Brasilia, coordinates strategies and transfers funds to the program’s civilian and military branches, is to be redesigned – and the most likely hypothesis is that AEB will merge with INPE, the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, headquartered in the city of São José dos Campos, or at least with part of its structure. It has been found that AEB has become a bureaucratic agency, devoid of good technical personnel and with little control over the priorities of the organs that it coordinates. This is driving the proposal for change, which, moreover, shows far more ambitions. These include increasing the program’s funding, more investment in the upgrading of human resources, a vigorous schedule of launches, capable of sending into space, if possible with Brazilian rockets, a collection of satellites designed to fulfill missions that are of interest to society, to the government and to the scientific community, and the true involvement of Brazilian industry in the quest for innovative solutions and the provisioning of systems. “If at present we launch one satellite every four years, we want to start launching one or two a year, because society needs this,” says Marco Antonio Raupp, president of AEB, who is coordinating the discussions and who will present a proposal this month. “The essential thing is that society manages to glimpse the uses of the program for various sectors, from environmental control to public safety. This makes it easier to fight for financing.”

One of the targets is to double the program’s budget, which was R$326 million in 2010. It is necessary to invest at least R$500 million a year in the Inpe satellites program, which is connected to the Ministry of Science and Technology, plus another R$200 million in the development of rockets by the Department of Science and Aerospace Technology (DCTA), which is under the Ministry of Defense. The Inpe director-general, Gilberto Câmara, reminds us that the figure is modest relative to the investments of other Bric countries. “To compete with India’s program, we should multiply our budget by five and, in the case of China, by seven. Our program has no military purposes, such as India’s, nor is it a tool for national assertion, as in China, but doubling the volume of funding is essential in order to provide the services that the country needs,” he states.

The “house-cleaning” aspect aims to expand the scale of the program. Inpe, which over the course of its history has produced and sent into space five satellites, has a series of projects that are being developed, some involving international partnership agreements, and wants to launch 14 satellites by 2020. The first is to be Cbers-3, a land monitoring satellite resulting from a partnership agreement with China that is now 23 years old. One of its cameras will produce images of the Amazon region every five days, with a resolution of approximately 70 meters, instead of the 260 meters of the camera of its predecessor, Cbers-2B, which stopped working in May of 2010. Cbers-3 is to go into space in 2012, after a five-year delay due to US restrictions on supplying electronic components. Another two satellites from this same family are foreseen in the agreement with China. In addition to these, Inpe is developing a Multimission Platform, designed to carry into space several types of cargo weighing as much as 500 kilograms (kg). Small satellites are proposed to monitor slash-burning in the Amazon region (Amazonia 1 and 2) and the oceans (Sabiá-1 and 2, in partnership with Argentina) and to conduct scientific missions, such as studying the spectrum of the soil and of vegetation (Flora Hiperespectral), the emission of X-rays (Lattes-1), the climate in space (CLE-1) and astrophysics (AST-1 and 2).

018-023_ProgramaEspacial_186-1As for the development of launch vehicles, under the responsibility of DCTA, there are also several projects under way. The explosion in August of 2003 of the satellite launching vehicle VLS-1 at the Alcântara base, which killed 21 engineers and technicians, evidenced Brazil’s difficulties in mastering the use of solid fuel technology. The VLS is still in the DCTA plans, but other rockets based on less elaborate technology are also being studied and Inpe is relying on them to carry its smaller satellites into space. This is the case of VLM-1, a micro-satellite launch vehicle, which can carry satellites weighing up to 100 kilograms, such as the space climate satellite (CLE-1). A version of VLS-1 with three stages, called VLS Alfa, is also being developed. It uses a liquid propellant, rather than the solid ones of the third and fourth stages. The DCTA hopes to develop a new family of rockets, capable of putting into orbit, by 2022, satellites of the size of SGB, the four-ton Brazilian geostationary satellite, which is to interconnect defense systems throughout Brazil. In an article published this year, Colonel Avandelino Santana Junior, the head of the Propulsion Division of IAE, the Institute of Aeronautics and Space, said that one of the assumptions of the program is the cooperation between Brazil and a country with space capabilities, especially as regards the development of liquid propulsion technology.

The expansion of the program’s third pillar, i.e., the Alcântara Launch Center in Maranhão, depends on other variables. Created in 1983, this is the closest base to the Equator, which enables making the most of the Earth’s rotation to drive the rockets upwards with fuel savings and lower costs (13% to 31% of advantage vs. Cape Canaveral in the United States). In practice, however, it is underutilized. To solve this problem, one must, first, remove a diplomatic obstacle that prohibits the launch of American rockets. In 2000, Brazil signed an Agreement on Technological Safeguard with the United States, establishing rules for rocket launches. The Brazilian Congress refused to ratify the agreement, claiming that some of the clauses clashed with national sovereignty. The outcome was that the country responsible for 80% of the market for launches does not use Alcântara. The minister of Science and Technology, Aloizio Mercadante, who was against this agreement when he was a member of Congress, has now announced his willingness to back an agreement. “We are at a new moment in this bilateral relation,” Mercadante stated at the inauguration of Raupp as president of AEB, in March.

Cbers program satellites undergoing tests: new launches

INPECbers program satellites undergoing tests: new launchesINPE

To make better use of Alcântara, Brazil signed an agreement with Ukraine to complete the development of Cyclone-4, a Ukrainian rocket, capable of putting a load of as much as two tons into a geostationary orbit from the Alcântara base in the state of Maranhão. The rocket is an adaptation of a soviet missile, but it is necessary to invest R$1 billion in the project. The agreement led to the establishment of a binational enterprise, Alcântara Cyclone 4, through which the two countries hope to share the dividends of the use of the base. However, this program is at a standstill. Brazil has already transferred R$218 million to it, but Ukraine is having difficulty complying with its commitment and has invested only R$98 million. The first qualification flight of Cyclone-4, originally scheduled for 2010, has now been rescheduled for 2013.

In relation to the space programs of other emerging countries, the Brazilian one has been losing importance. When it entered into the agreement with China, in 1988, Brazil had a fair amount of influence when it came to the technological development of satellites. “Today, the asymmetry between the two countries has increased a lot, but the Chinese government continues to regard the partnership arrangement with Brazil with interest,” says Ricardo Cartaxo, the coordinator of the Cbers program. The delays in the Brazilian space program displease the Chinese, who are to decide, this year, whether they want to maintain the partnership after the launch Cbers-3 and 4. According to a report of the Futron Corporation, in the United States, Brazil ranks last among the 10 countries analyzed by the Space Competitiveness Index, which assesses three main dimensions: government programs, human capital and industry participation. “The pursuit of autonomy, both in the sphere of critical technologies and in access to space or in the use of space services and applications, has not been achieved, generating, to this day, dependence on international operators and suppliers,” observed senator Rodrigo Rollemberg (PSB-DF), who, last year, as a member of the Federal House of Representatives, coordinated a broad study on space policy at the House.

018-023_ProgramaEspacial_186-2MECB, the complete Brazilian space mission, which began in 1979, targeted building two data collection satellites and two Earth observation satellites, to be launched from Brazil in national rockets. In practice, there were three attempts to launch the VLS, which culminated in the 2003 tragedy; two data collection satellites (SCD) were launched by foreign rockets and three observation satellites were developed and launched jointly with China (Cbers), besides the cooperation with Ukraine for the launch of rockets from Alcântara. Apart from the delays, the program has lost its original articulation. Today, the VLS project cannot bear a new generation of satellites developed by Inpe, based on the Multimission Platform. The Cyclone-4 rockets might be able to handle the task, but would be unsuitable to carry the large satellites of developed countries, which usually weigh more than two tons. “Making satellites is easier than making rockets,” Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho, the president of AEB from 1994 to 2001 reminds us. “The intention of those who formulated MECB was the best possible and the mission, at the time, gave the Brazilian space program ambitious dimensions. However it was a mistake to treat the strategy as a mission that had to be fulfilled to only then give rise to a new mission,” he states. Another mistake, according to Gylvan, was trying to develop launchers without international partners during the military government. This led the program to an isolated status from which it has never recovered.

Although it is true that the Brazilian space program faces chronic delays and has difficulty mastering critical technologies, one must acknowledge, nonetheless, that it did bear important fruit. It enabled local production of materials for the production of propellants (the chemical compounds used as fuel), of metal alloys and of ceramic materials. Today, the propellants are produced on an industrial scale and use a raw material for the manufacture of glues, paints and foams. Brazil has acquired international competence in processing satellite images and Inpe has become a benchmark reference in meteorology services, in the monitoring of slash-burning in the Amazon region and in climate change research. This is also true of its LIT integration and trials laboratory, acknowledged as one of the world’s best equipped in satellite development. The decision to distribute, free of charge, the images produced by the three Cbers satellites had an impact on this market. Even the Americans decided to make the Landsat images available.

Gilberto Câmara highlights that Inpe plays a fundamental support role in what he called the economics of information about nature. “Brazil is the world leader in sustainable development. We have reduced the deforesting of the Amazon region. We have the best system of environmental monitoring by satellite in the world. We have the largest percentage of energy from renewable sources in our energy structure. The vision that Inpe is advocating for the civilian space program is that technology should provide added value for the economics of knowledge about nature. And we are already putting this vision into practice,” says Câmara. “We provide support for agriculture, for the maintenance of ecosystems, for climate change studies, for weather and natural disaster forecasting, for the management of megacities.”

The remainders of the accident at the Alcântara base in 2003

ROSE BRASIL The remainders of the accident at the Alcântara base in 2003ROSE BRASIL

There is a consensus that limited funding is responsible for most of the program’s problems – the 1980’s crisis and the hyperinflation of the 1990’s resulted in an unstable inflow of cash and jeopardized the evolution of the research. “The construction of satellites, rockets and land-based infrastructure is complex and involves technological risks, high costs and long development cycles, ranging in general from four to eight years,” wrote Himilcon de Castro Carvalho, the executive manager of Pnae, the national program of space activities, in an article published in a dossier on the space program, prepared by the Bureau of Strategic Issues of the Presidency of the Republic. “The management of the projects and the space activities becomes a hostage of uncertainty in the long-term, of the financial support required to conduct the tasks and the contracts involved, a situation that generates constant continuity problems and tiresome re-planning activities.”

After the VLS tragedy in 2003, the federal government determined an increase in investments in the program, with a spending forecast of R$5.5 billion between 2005 and 2014. Though the volume of funds did indeed rise between 2004 and 2009, only one third of what had been promised was actually invested during this period. There are several proposals to save the space program from going wrong again as a result of the low and unstable budget. One proposal is that used in France. Here, the State signs a six-year agreement with Cnes, the National Center for Space Studies, guaranteeing that the budget of any given year will be at least equal to that of the preceding year. Alternatively, there is the UK system, where the budget of the British Space Agency is comprised of direct contributions from the entities that use space products, such as the Department of Transport and the Meteorology Agency.

The expansion of the space program also implies creating domestic industrial competencies, making the industry a partner in the development and provisioning of technologies. This started, in an incipient form, with the five satellites that Inpe launched. Companies, in particular those in the area of São José dos Campos, started specializing as suppliers. However, the number of contracts proved to be insufficient to provide consistency for the nascent base. To develop the inertial navigation system of the Amazonia-1 satellite, it was necessary to hire an Argentine firm, Invap, in 2008. Inpe actually conducted eight bidding processes for domestic industries, all in vain.

The engineer Cesar Ghizoni, director-president of Equatorial Sistemas, a company created to develop systems for the Cbers satellites, proposes that the strategy to create a complex of enterprises should be more ambitious than that currently being considered. He mentions the example of the National Defense Strategy requirements, which call for the development of satellites capable of producing high-resolution images to control borders which are not covered by the current efforts. “The Cbers project uses technology from the 1980’s. As for the Multimission Platform, it is a project from the 1990’s. The specifications, particularly the equipment for the subsystems of orbit and altitude control, are unsuitable for high resolution observation missions,” he says. In a proposal submitted to the Ministry of Defense and to AEB, Equatorial proposed to bring from abroad a latest generation satellite platform to be assembled in Brazil and, gradually, to develop local suppliers for its parts. The company, he says, is ready to take part in this effort. “With the work we did on Cbers, we managed to survive, but the industry requires a far greater scale,” he states.

The reformulation of the program resuscitates old ideas – the need to train human resources and to develop autonomous technology was among the strategies of the Janio Quadros administration. Back in 1961, Quadros created Cobae, the National Commission of Space Activities in São José dos Campos. However, one should learn from the program’s successes and failures. The idea of investing in missions designed for specific needs is due to the success of Cbers. Brazil continues to be interested in developing satellites and launching equipment, but these objectives are not longer bound together, as was the case of the Complete Space Mission. “We have to strengthen all the elements of the program and guarantee their governance,” says Marco Antonio Raupp.

Other lessons were learned previously. The creation of AEB, in 1994, aimed to lend a civilian character to the space program and to exorcize suspicions about its military intentions, which stood in the way of international cooperation. The setting up of this agency coincided with Brazil joining, in 1995, a system that limits the development of rockets to dimensions that make it impossible to use them as weapons of mass destruction. “AEB was created to do away with international suspicion about Brazil and, in this sense, it was successful. If it had trouble attracting good technical personnel, this was due to a problem of structure in the country’s capital, not to the original idea,” says Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho.

Atlantis departs on its last mission

NASAAtlantis departs on its last missionNASA

Fruit of the space race

Since the space shuttle is being retired, American astronauts will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) by hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. This will be the case until the Barack Obama administration’s project to transfer to the private-sector the creation of orbiting taxis to put astronauts into orbit materializes. The world has gone round a great deal since 1961, when the US president John Kennedy posed the challenge “to put men on the Moon and bring them back safely” while still in the 1960’s. This was a response to the Soviet rivals, who had put Yuri Gagarin in orbit on the historic day of April 12 of 1961. The Apollo 11 spacecraft made history on July 20 of 1969, fulfilling Kennedy’s challenge. The Americans returned to the moon a few times, the last of which was in 1972. However, the intent to re-experience this achievement was aborted for lack of funds. If a man returns to the Moon this decade, it will be an astronaut from China, the only country that is working on such a mission.

The conquest of space marked the imagination of generations of earthlings, but its strongest effects have become divorced from the vision, idealized by science fiction, of the human exploration of space. “There was a time when the results of space research had a huge impact on the generation of wealth in the United States, but now the frontiers are different and are connected, for instance, to information technology and neuroscience,” says Gilberto Câmara, the Inpe director-general. Other fruits of the space race developed during the Cold War are lasting, such as the constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth, which revolutionized telecommunication, meteorology, agriculture and defense.

In the space race, the players and their drivers have changed. China is re-living the wish for national affirmation that drove the United States and the Soviet Union. It put astronauts into orbit, and it is preparing its own orbital station and a mission to the Moon. India, which nourishes the dream of sending a man into space, is developing lunar probes. The European Union is placing its bets on interplanetary probes. And Russia, pragmatically, launches satellites and carries astronauts, hired by anyone willing to pay for this.