News from the 64th International Astronautical Congress | Backers Insist Brazilian Spaceport Is Nearing Launch Readiness

by

BEIJING — The company created to sell commercial launch services aboard Ukrainian rockets operated from a Brazilian equatorial spaceport is seeking to convince skeptics that it is finally nearing launch readiness.

A decade after it was created by a Ukrainian-Brazilian bilateral treaty and after the investment of several hundred million dollars, Alcantara Cyclone Space (ACS) says an inaugural flight from the Brazilian Alcantara site likely will occur in 2015.

In presentations to a finance audience in September in Paris and to a technical audience here Sept. 24 at the 64th International Astronautical Congress, ACS and Ukrainian officials said the issues that have slowed development are in the past.

Some three-quarters of the development needed for the Cyclone 4 rocket — using Cyclone 3 and Cyclone 4 first and second stages and a new upper stage designed by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye — is completed, ACS officials said, and 48 percent of the launch site’s construction has been completed.

But that is the same percentage completion ACS announced in March. Sergiy Guchenko, ACS’s chief commercial officer, said development of the launch base has been slowed by property ownership claims by the indigenous population.

Brazil and Ukraine agreed in October 2003 to develop the Alcantara site using Cyclone 4 after Brazil’s own domestic rocket development foundered with an August 2003 on-pad explosion. 

But the Cyclone 4 project — as innovative in its way as France’s decision to import Russia’s Soyuz rocket to Europe’s Guiana Space Center, next door to Alcantara — has always appeared the result of a political agreement not always appreciated by the Brazilian Space Agency, AEB.

In a speech here Sept. 23 devoted to international cooperation and Brazil’s acknowledgment that it could not go it alone in space development, AEB President Jose Raimundo Braga Coelho did not mention the Alcantara project.

ACS officials said Brazil’s VLS rocket, which is still part of the nation’s space strategy, will share the 620-square-kilometer Alcantara launch base with Cyclone 4.

Brazil and Ukraine are dividing equally the financing of ACS, which under the treaty is supposed to refund the investment from proceeds of launch service contracts over time. This is not unlike an agreement Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium struck with the European Investment Bank for a loan to purchase Russian Soyuz vehicles for use at the European spaceport.

The loan for Soyuz purchases was concluded in 2005, and the first Europeanized Soyuz was launched in late 2011.

Soyuz is slowly being integrated into Arianespace’s operational rhythm and has proved popular with European governments for Earth observation missions.

Like Arianespace, ACS will have at its disposal a launch site whose proximity to the equator gives a vehicle born in the former Soviet Union a much wider launch market offering more capacity to a given orbit than can be offered from Russia’s high-latitude spaceports. 

In addition to its equatorial location, Alcantara, like Europe’s Guiana Space Center, can launch into polar and equatorial orbit without overflying land areas.

ACS says a Cyclone 4 launched from Alcantara can carry a 3,900-kilogram satellite into a sun-synchronous polar orbit with a 400-kilometer altitude. For payloads heading to equatorial low Earth orbit, Cyclone 4 can carry nearly 5,700 kilograms.

For a telecommunications satellite destined for geostationary transfer orbit, Cyclone 4 can handle up to 1,600 kilograms in launch mass, a figure ACS says it hopes to improve over time. The new upper stage is capped by a 3.65-meter-diameter fairing.

Industry officials, including some who would compete with ACS, say the evolution of the global commercial satellite market appears to have turned in ACS’s favor, assuming the company can prove itself in the next couple of years and keep prices below those offered by the Europeanized Soyuz and the newer European Vega small-satellite launcher.

Multiple small-satellite initiatives are finding traction among investors, and almost all of them are concerned that vehicles in Russia and Ukraine — the German-Russian Rockot, the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr, the Russian Soyuz — will not provide sufficient launch frequency to satisfy the market for piggyback payloads.

The Russian and Ukrainian vehicles operating now have also sharply increased their prices in recent years.

Despite the market success of the European Soyuz, European government authorities are already planning all-European alternatives to support their domestic industry instead of sending cash to Russia’s Soyuz builders.

Whether Brazil’s VLS rocket development will be a priority in Brazil’s newly ambitious space program remains unclear.