Located in the state of Maranhão, Brazil, the Alcântara Launch Center made two launch tests last week on Thursday (June 16) and Friday (June 17), which are part of preparations to launch satellites (Satellite Launcher Vehicle – VLS) and the Cyclone 4 rocket that is being developed in a joint venture with Ukraine.
Besides the tests, there will be two more test launches before the end of this year: one, in August and the other in October or November.
Brazil also has an ambitious satellite program for the next three years: in September 2012, the Cbers 3 satellite, for earth observation, in a partnership with China; in 2013, a totally Brazilian satellite, the Amazon 1, that will weigh 550 kilos; and, probably in September 2014, Cbers 4, another partnership satellite with China.
The location of the launches may be decided by international bidding. The cost of each launch is around US$ 30 million. The total bill for all three satellites will be around US$ 200 million.
The Amazon 1 was originally scheduled to go into orbit in 2010, but ran into technology problems. Marco Antônio Chamon, coordinator of Technology Management at the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) says there were setbacks.
“Adaptation of the Brazilian industrial sector to space technology demands was slower than expected. There is a learning curve that does not depend on the number of people or the amount of money. It is complicated and just takes time,” explains Chamon.
Elizabeth Veloso, a consultant on science and technology at the Chamber of Deputies, says the Brazilian space effort has suffered due to a lack of continuity.
“There is no ‘purchase flow,’ there are no clear priorities, and there is a lack of consistent funding. As a result, targets are not met. Brazil is at the mercy of the big powers and totally dependent on them for satellite monitoring (deforestation, border control, weather forecasting) of our own country,” she says
The Brazilian-Chinese earth observation satellite, Cbers 2b, was closed down in April 2010, at the end of its useful life.
Célio Costa Vaz, a director at engineering firm Orbital Engenharia Ltda says that the Brazilian space program is presently “on a downward spiral.” He points out that Brazilian firms cannot survive on supply contracts for the domestic space program while they have difficulties competing in the international market.
Besides the delay with the Amazon 1 satellite, other projects are behind schedule or undefined: a satellite to be launched in partnership with the United States for the International Program on Precipitation Measurement; a remote sensory satellite to be launched in partnership with Germany and various satellites for scientific experiments and observation (Lattes, Equars and Mirax).
In July, Brazil’s federal government will decide on what it wants to accomplish with its space program and how much it is willing to spend on those goals. In August the budget goes to Congress as part of a multi-year plan for the period 2012 – 2016.
According to Marco Antônio Chamon, at the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe), the money for technology development has already been allocated. “The budget for these satellites is not a complicated problem… All the parts are under order. What we want to avoid in the future is the present situation where we do not have a single satellite in space under our control,” declared Chamon.
However, a study by the Science, Technology, Communication and Informatics Commission in the Chamber of Deputies points out that spending on the Brazilian space program has been insufficient and irregular.
According to the study, quoting a legislative consultant, Roberto de Medeiros Filho, Brazilian outlays for satellites (less than $150 million per year) is around 10% of what China, Russia and India spend, and even South Africa.
Medeiros Filho asks: “Why is Brazilian spending, besides irregular, so low compared to other countries with space technology? It seems the country does not have a national plan or stratagem to protect its strategic programs and projects.”
In spite of the uncertain future and the present Brazilian satellite “blackout,” the country receives a constant flow of satellite images, which permit it to monitor deforestation.
George Porto Ferreira, at the Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama), says the rainforest is being monitored effectively. “Our situation is normal. We do not foresee any lack of satellite images in our efforts to protect the environment.”
Ibama gets satellite images from Inpe, which has cooperation contracts with the United States, Europe and India that allows it to monitor the rainforest in real time and release periodical evaluations. Ferreira calls Inpe “an important partner.”