Brazil looks abroad for small rockets seeking a little extra boost
For about three decades, Brazil has sought to draw international launch companies to the Alcantara Launch Center, a spaceport with an ideal coastal location but no successful orbital launches to show for it.
The Alcantara Launch Center is 300 kilometers closer to the equator than any active spaceport, meaning rockets launched into equatorial orbits from there would get an extra boost compared to Cape Canaveral or even the Guiana Space Center.
The Brazilian spaceport has an area for sounding rockets, a runway for air-launched vehicles and two finished launchpads. One of the pads can support rockets weighing up to 10,000 kilograms — a little less than the liftoff mass of Rocket Lab’s operational Electron rocket. The other launchpad can handle rockets up to 50,000 kilograms — not quite enough for the advertised mass of Firefly’s still-in-development Alpha rocket. Alcantara also has a third, unfinished pad where Brazil and Ukraine once planned to launch the hypergolic-fueled Cyclone-4 rocket before ending their partnership in 2015.
Brazil built Alcantara in the 1980s for the development and operations of the solid-fueled VLS rocket, but the long-struggling program suffered a string of failures and never regained traction after a 2003 pre-launch explosion killed 21 people. The VLS program formally ended in 2016.
In tandem with the VLS development effort, Brazil sought to launch Ukrainianbuilt Cyclone-4 rockets from Alcantara, but that decade-plus endeavor ended after a litany of financial, technical and political challenges. Among them was growing doubt about the medium-lift rocket’s market viability. Cyclone-4 was designed to lift around 1,600 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit — too little to support the heavy communications satellites typically launched to that orbit — or 5,200 kilograms to low Earth orbit, far more than most dedicated LEO missions.
Brazilian Space Agency President Carlos Augusto Teixeira de Moura says the agency is now focused on attracting small launch vehicles to Alcantara, which it views as having a greater chance of financial success. In November, a mix of seven launch, mission operations and satellite communications companies visited Alcantara through a trip arranged by U.S.-based trade association CompTIA’s Space Enterprise Council.
Moura said that among interested companies is Virgin Orbit, which confirmed to SpaceNews that Alcantara is on the list of potential expansion sites for its LauncherOne system.
“In the case of Brazil, we’re seeing some promising features where air-launch can enable access to literally any inclination and with a fairly turnkey approach,” said John Fuller, Virgin Orbit’s director of advanced concepts.
On the political front, Brazil signed a technology safeguards agreement with the United States in March to streamline the regulatory process for American companies to launch from Alcantara, and is willing to do the same for other countries, he said.
Alcantara isn’t exactly move-in ready for all rockets. The launch center wasn’t built to support liquid-fueled launchers, a point Moura readily acknowledges. Until there’s enough launch activity to justify the required infrastructure investments, liquid propellants could be brought in from nearby Sāo Luís, he said.
The Brazilian Space Agency issued a public call May 25 for companies and organizations to apply for a launch license to use the Alcantara spaceport. Registrations were required by July 31, with initial proposals due Aug. 31 and final proposals Oct. 30.
Moura spoke with SpaceNews about the Brazilian Space Agency’s renewed effort to draw launch business to Alcantara. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What lessons did the Brazilian Space Agency learn from trying to commercialize the Cyclone-4 rocket with Ukraine?
We should go to the early 1990s when Ukraine had the capability to design and construct launchers but did not have a launch site. Brazil had a launch site without any vehicles, so we had a good idea: let’s join our capabilities and do some business.
The idea was good but we failed in some aspects. One of the main lessons is that we should focus on a market and then structure the whole process to be competitive. Now we believe microand nanosatellites could be successfully exploited by Alcantara. We could also be competitive with bigger satellites, but the micro- and nanosat niche should be first.
The second lesson concerns the initial share of responsibilities and the development of business plans suited to each of our capabilities. Some of the points not well clarified at the beginning between Brazil and Ukraine brought a lot of problems during the execution of the program. So we should take more care in the initial share of responsibility.
Third is the legal environment. As it occurs in other industries, the ecosystem should be stable. We should have a fertile ground to develop a business. Other space markets are moving with NewSpace and private actors. We believe that the Ukraine-Brazilian treaty signed in 2003 would not be feasible in 2020. We have a new market and new actors, so now anything we do should concern how the business could be sustainable, and then from that point of view derive the other details.
What conditions do companies have to meet to launch from Alcantara?
International companies will come to Brazil only if they really believe that we can be competitive.
Discussing with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, we found that the licensing process is a little bit awkward. It takes a long time and is difficult for a company to get all the approvals. We are trying to do here in Brazil something that is safe, of course, but possibly easier and faster.
The first step is to pass the inscription process, to present some very short information. The requirement is that a company have a resident in the country. That may be a legal representation, a joint venture, or even a Brazilian branch or subsidiary. It will be important that the representation have an ID number; in Brazil we call that a CNPJ, or National Registry of Legal Entities number.
Then the second step is to apply for an operator’s license. As a space agency, we should perform that activity.
The other part of the process will be done by the Brazilian Air Force. They have the infrastructure and the means, so they will provide the technical and logistical support. The contracts should be discussed with the Air Force.
How much will companies have to pay to launch from Alcantara?
In this initial implementation phase we will perform a kind of soft open. The Brazilian Space Agency will take care of the licensing process and the companies will discuss the contracts with the Brazilian Air Force. According to our rules, the Brazilian Air Force cannot get profits from that, so what they will do is mainly discuss the cost of reimbursement. That is some good news.
Another advantage is, at the moment, the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Brazilian reals is about 5-to-1.
After signing a technology safeguards agreement with the United States, will Brazil seek similar agreements with other governments, such as the European Union, India or China?
We believe the countries you mentioned will not require this kind of agreement with us, but our minister of science and technology has declared that he will personally consult other countries for a similar technology safeguards agreement. Every country can come to Brazil and we will respect and protect their technology.
Did Brazil’s close relationship with China’s space program factor into the need for a technology safeguards agreement with the United States?
The relationship with China continues on a normal basis even after signing the safeguard agreement with the U.S. — the same way the U.S. has technology safeguard agreements with Russia, Ukraine and other countries that [have] some different political postures.
How much new Brazilian investment has happened, or will happen, for Alcantara?
If we consider the long time Brazil has been working on Alcantara, we believe that we have spent some hundreds of millions of dollars. At the moment we are thinking about spending tens of millions of dollars more. For example, we are thinking about $15 million to have a very good airport. In energy, we are investing about $3 million. We believe if we invest something between $20 million to $40 million, the launch center would be in very good shape to support small launch.
If we do accept a company that would bring a medium- or a heavy-lift launcher to Alcantara, that would require hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, but in this case it will not be the Brazilian government that would pay for that. The company should invest its own resources.
Is your focus just on orbital launch, or also suborbital?
We believe we can have a mix.
If someone wanted to land a reusable rocket, like SpaceX does with Falcon 9’s first stage, could they do that at Alcantara?
Yes, that’s something we are telling to everybody. Let’s do good things, but not repeat what is already done everywhere. We can accommodate this kind of operation.
Can the spaceport support solid-fueled and liquid-fueled rockets?
So far, Alcantara provides just for solid-fueled rockets. It has a minimum infrastructure for satellites with small amounts of liquid fuels, but not for the launch vehicles. Plans are to have this capability in the future, since it was planned for Cyclone-4.
Many startups are designing rockets that burn kerosene or methane. What changes are needed for Alcantara to support these rockets?
For now we don’t have the infrastructure to support this kind of fuel and oxidizer, but Alcantara is near Sāo Luís. They have about 1 million people there, so it’s a city with a large industrial sector. We can receive from that city all the propellants we need. But if we consider it a continuous operation, certainly it would require to install in Alcantara this kind of plant. I believe as soon as we have a larger demand, it would be very nice to have this kind of plant in Alcantara.
When do you hope to see a first launch from an international company in Alcantara?
I was planning to have that at the end of this year, but considering all the hurdles and this COVID-19 problem, I believe it would be more conservative to plan for 2021 as the first private launch from Alcantara.
Would the Brazilian Space Agency put its own payloads on an international rocket if it launched from Alcantara?
For the moment we are paying other countries to launch our satellites. Last year we launched a satellite (the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite 4A) with China. At the end of this year or the beginning of 2021, we will launch another Brazilian satellite. It’s an American company (Spaceflight Inc.) that won that contract, but it will be launched by the PSLV in India. I believe that it would be better if we could invest that money in Brazil. I believe that everyone would be very glad to know we could launch from our country.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 3, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.