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Ready for lift-off

The Alcântara space base will conduct its first orbital launches in 2022, nearly 40 years after its creation

A sequence of images showing the AV-FTB suborbital rocket launch at Alcântara


Brazil is taking an important step towards joining the group of nations capable of space flight. Two public calls for proposals for nonmilitary use of the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA), on the coast of Maranhão State, are under way. The first request for proposals (RFPs) selected four specialized companies to use the base in conjunction: the Canadian firm C6 Launch, and Virgin Orbit, Orion AST, and Hyperion Rocket Systems from the United States. Contract negotiations with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), the agency responsible for administering the CLA, are now at an advanced stage. “This step is expected to be completed in six months and the first space launch should take place in the second half of 2022,” says Air Force Colonel Marcello Correa de Souza, director of the CLA.

“It’s well under way. The four companies chosen accepted the CLA’s terms of use. The FAB knows the companies, which have already gone through a long selection process,” observes Carlos Moura, president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB). The agency is in charge of public calls for proposals and the preselection phase for companies interested in launching at the Alcântara spaceport. “What’s under negotiation is the frequency and schedule for use of the base, and the contractual amounts and insurance required,” Moura adds. The negotiations take place in secrecy.

The first RFP provides for the use of CLA structures designed to handle small and medium-size rocket operations of up to 100 tons and 30 meters in height. Each of the companies selected will operate in a specific area of the spaceport (see infographic). British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit firm will use the runway at the base’s airport. With a length of 2.6 kilometers, it allows for the operation of large planes capable of launching rockets from their wings or fuselage.

Based in California, Virgin Orbit uses an adapted Boeing 747-400 to conduct its launches. The first rocket, LauncherOne, went into space in January and launched nine small satellites into orbit for the US space agency NASA. The plane took off from a private airport in California. The billionaire has another space venture, Virgin Galactic, whose objective is to take tourists into space. His spacecraft made its first flight in July, with Branson himself on board.

The other companies selected will operate in CLA’s Preparation and Launch Sector (PLS), which comprises three launch areas. Hyperion was given the Mobile Integration Tower (TMI), a structure originally intended for the use of the Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS), a rocket designed by the Brazilian Air Force. The original facility was almost completely destroyed in 2003, when the third iteration of the VLS exploded on the ground three days before its scheduled launch, killing 21 technicians and engineers. Eight years later, the tower was rebuilt.

Two companies that haven’t yet conducted commercial operations were selected to use the Medium-Size Launcher (MSL) and Wind Profiler areas. The MSL sector was reserved for Orion AST, which specializes in the production of nanosatellites for tracking space debris. It will conduct launches up to 200 km in altitude. C6 Launch, which builds 13-meter rockets for placing small satellites into orbit, was authorized to use the Wind Profiler area. This location features an installation for measuring the direction and speed of wind at high altitudes, which will be adapted for rocket launches. C6 Launch will execute the adaptations.

According to Colonel Correa, during the negotiation phase the four companies will be required to present their operation plans vis-à-vis launch frequency and the volume of vehicles. “After the contracts are signed it will be possible to analyze the potential for joint operations by other companies within the same sectors,” he adds. For Moura at AEB, the profiles of the selected companies indicate a high potential for windows of available time at the various spaceport areas. In this case, a new public call will be made to fill the idle time.

The other RFP in progress was published in April and has the objective of selecting an operator for the CLA’s Area 4. This sector is the site of an unfinished launch structure that was to be used by the binational firm Alcântara Cyclone Space (ACS), the result of a space accord signed between Brazil and Ukraine in 2003 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 186). The deal was broken off in 2015 without any space vehicles having been launched, and at a loss to the public coffers calculated at the time at R$483 million, according to the Federal Audit Office (TCU).

Area 4 is the only sector in the Alcântara complex capable of conducting orbital launches with large rockets over 100 tons. For this to occur, however, AEB president Moura estimates that over R$300 million will need to be invested, depending on the profile of the vehicles to be launched. Nonetheless, the RFP does not propose that Area 4 must necessarily be used for large-scale launches. The winner will be responsible for adapting and completing the construction. The contract will give exclusive use—or concession—for a period proportional to the company’s investment. “We have five proposals under study. Between October and November, we hope to announce a company has been qualified to negotiate with the FAB,” Moura anticipates.

CLA’s launch history
The CLA was created in 1983 to complement the capacity of the Barreira do Inferno [Hell’s Barrier] Launch Center located about 20 kilometers from Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte. Over time, the Natal region had become densely populated, and the launch area’s proximity to population centers increased the risks involved in the event of an accident. The population density in Alcântara, an hour away by boat from São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, is much lower. The base occupies an isolated 620-square-kilometer (km²) area far from the city’s urban center, which numbers fewer than 25,000 inhabitants. The area is located on a peninsula and has the capacity to conduct launches without overflying inhabited areas. This is a huge operational advantage and also reduces the impacts of potential accidents.

Despite having been designed primarily to provide Brazil with the infrastructure required to place its own satellites in orbit, to date the CLA has only conducted suborbital launches that reach high altitudes, over 100 km above sea level. However, such launches cannot place objects on a full orbital trajectory (see infographic). None of the satellites developed in Brazil have been launched from Alcântara to date. The most recent Brazilian satellite, Amazonia 1, launched in February from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 300).

The ongoing FAB negotiations should make the first satellite launches from Brazilian soil viable. If all goes well, the country will owe its new status as a rocket-launching nation to the Technological Safeguards Agreement (TSA) signed in 2019 between the governments of Brazil and the United States, which will protect the intellectual property of US technologies used in devices launched from Alcântara (see inset). “It is a necessary, common agreement, but one that Brazil was reluctant to accept for political reasons, which contributed to our being behind in the space market,” says Petrônio Noronha de Souza, a researcher at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the director of AEB Space Policy between 2012 and 2018.

The Alcântara base has competitive advantages over other facilities of its kind, but it also presents a few problems. The principal point in its favor is its geographic location. At 2 degrees and 18 minutes south latitude (2º18′ south), the CLA is quite close to the equator. Satellite launches intended for equatorial orbits, such as the geostationary satellites used mainly in telecommunications, orbit at 36,000 kilometers above the equator. Departing from Alcântara offers fuel savings of up to 30% compared to a launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida (USA). “Less fuel means less weight in the rocket and, consequently, greater payload capacity that may be transported—therein lies the advantage,” explains Souza.

Besides Alcântara, the only other launch facility located close to the equatorial line is the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana. That facility is mainly used by the French company Arianespace, which provides launches for the European Space Agency. Kourou, however, has an intensive operations schedule and few windows of opportunity for new contracts. The availability of scheduling opportunities, for now, is an advantage for CLA, a newcomer to the international scene.

Alcântara also features 107º of available launch azimuths. Launch azimuth range is the radius of horizontal trajectories, or compass directions, that can safely be used for launching; the bigger the better. “We’re able to place vehicles in any orbital plane, from equatorial orbits, to inclined planes and polar orbits,” Colonel Correa says. When a rocket launch is already pointed toward its desired orbit from the moment of liftoff, the need for firing maneuvers is reduced, which requires less energy, i.e., less fuel to be carried by the rocket. The majority of satellites, such as those used for geographic mapping, Earth observation, and meteorology, require a polar orbit making a north-south path that passes over both poles.

The Maranhão base also has the advantage of being distant from seismic areas subject to earthquakes and tsunamis, and is located in a region with favorable weather conditions far from hurricane and tornado routes featuring well-defined dry and rainy seasons. Another relevant factor in Alcântra’s favor is the region’s flight patterns. “We don’t have any airways with intense air traffic, which allows for prolonged launch windows without causing significant impacts on flight schedules,” states the CLA director. The logistics are favored by the proximity of the port of Itaqui, in São Luís, with one of the deepest drafts in the country, which provides for mooring large ships. The CLA’s operational structures, such as radar, telemetry antennas, and the control center, are capable of supporting rockets of all sizes, according to Colonel Correa.

The problems lie mainly with the precarious communications infrastructure, such as internet access and mobile telephony—both of which are poor—and in the lack of specialized labor. “These are points that we hope to improve with the Alcântara Space Center project, the CEA, for which we intend to bring in public and private funding,” says Correa.

The CEA also needs to improve the infrastructure in the city of Alcântara, which lacks adequate hotels and restaurants to meet the demands of visitors and teams from the rocket-launch companies. The region does not offer specialized services for metallurgical, mechanical, or pneumatic support in cases where minor repairs to parts and implements are needed, nor does it offer supplies of gases, oxidizers, and fuels. Everything needs to come from São Luis, the capital of Maranhão. “The experience of other launch centers is that the initiation of commercial activities leverages the offer of local services,” Moura emphasizes.

For engineer Julio Shidara, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Brazil (AIAB), launch operations at the CLA could create demand for providing high-tech systems, which would result in new opportunities for Brazilian technology companies. “Many Brazilian companies are capable of handling every segment of support for the CLA, from infrastructure to components and rocket systems,” he says. Shidara anticipates a demand for tracking systems, meteorological radar, telemetry and remote-control systems, and infrastructure for handling fuels and explosive materials, as well as services for maintaining and calibrating equipment.

Aeronautical engineer João Luiz de Azevedo, a researcher at the Aeronautics and Space Institute (IAE)—the agency linked to Aeronautics Command—believes that foreign companies operating in Alcântara will bring most of their own equipment and the supplies needed for launches from their bases abroad. This means that—at least initially—few opportunities for developing a local supply chain would be generated. Even so, he remains optimistic. “The start of orbital launches in Alcântara could break the vicious circle we’re in now,” he says. “We don’t have a strong industry focused on launch vehicles, because we don’t have launches. You need to start somewhere.”

Since the accident with the VLS-1 nearly 20 years ago, the base has been underutilized, even for administrative purposes. The new phase of operations and the international bid notices introduces the Alcantra center to a market for orbital launches which saw revenues of US$4.9 billion in 2019, according to the Satellite Industry Association, based in the United States. Moura, at the Brazilian Space Agency, says Brazil’s goal is to try to capture 10% of this market by 2040, when the number of launches worldwide is expected to be three times greater than today, climbing to around 300 per year.

Agreement with USA makes launches viable
Settlement protects intellectual property of US-based technology used in rockets launched from Alcantara

The Technological Safeguards Agreement (TSA) between Brazil and the United States traveled a long road before being signed in 2019. The first attempt dates back to the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, which reached an agreement with the United States in 2000, but the initiative was blocked by the Legislature. Opposition politicians claimed that the treaty would damage national sovereignty by preventing government inspection of equipment brought into Brazil from the United States. The negotiations were only resumed in 2017, during Michel Temer’s presidency. The accord was finalized during the current administration.

In practice, the agreement is a signed commitment between the two countries that the technologies and patents for the equipment used in the launches will be protected against unauthorized use and copying. “The current agreement doesn’t differ much from the one proposed in 2000 or from the contract signed with Ukraine in 2003,” says Petrônio Noronha de Souza, former director of space policy at the Brazilian Space Agency.

The United States has similar agreements with Russia, China, India, Ukraine, and New Zealand, the principal countries that currently have rocket-launching capabilities. Experts point out that not having an agreement with the United States makes it virtually impossible for a country to offer launch services, since about 80% of the space equipment used globally includes some component from that country.

The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation estimates that Brazil’s delay in completing the safeguards agreement with the United States resulted in a loss of approximately US$3.9 billion in revenue from unrealized launches, considering the potential for Brazil to have been the site of at least 5% of the world’s launches over the last 20 years.

Political scientist Flávio Rocha de Oliveira, a specialist in geopolitics and professor of international relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), in São Paulo, views the agreement with certain reservations. For him, receiving only financial remuneration for using the CLA is scant compensation, given the fact that the TSA positions Brazil as a geopolitical ally of the United States in the aerospace competition between the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians. “We should have negotiated an agreement that would bring more technological benefits to the Brazilian space program, such as investing the resources obtained through the TSA in the development of a satellite launch vehicle,” he says. “In the emerging space industry, we may repeat what happened in the automobile sector, that is, we were unable to build a serious industrial group of our own and have been condemned to be—at most—auto parts suppliers, conceding our territory to multinationals, unlike what South Korea and Japan have been able to accomplish.”