Op-ed | Running the Space Playbook in Chile

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Some of the most important science in the field of astronomy has been possible because of Chile, from studying black holes to tracking the debris trail left after NASA’s DART spacecraft when it slammed into the asteroid Didymos. By some estimates, Chile holds half or more of the world’s astronomy infrastructure, which owes largely to the favorable Atacama Desert skies in the country’s northern region.

But Chile’s future in space is not just relegated to looking up (through observatories often run by foreign space organizations). While its astronomy sector is mature, there is a fast-moving effort to strategically build other components of the country’s space ecosystem. Starting with a research project first launched nearly 30 years ago, today, Chile is implementing a national strategy to simultaneously develop space assets, the technical capacity to build and operate them, and the human capital that can sustain and grow space activities over time — all while bringing the rewards of space back to Earth to uplift Chileans in every region.

To be sure, Chile is running the space playbook that we can see in action (in a variety of forms) in spacefaring nations around the world: space initiatives are used to drive research, investment, and commercial activity that inspires education and technical development, creates jobs, fuels competitiveness, and injects innovation into adjacent industries. That model is unfolding in Chile today and without the institutional baggage and bureaucracy often found in long-standing space programs. As Chile’s Minister of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation Silvia Díaz Acosta said, “We have a great advantage. We are totally new to this.”

 

(Satellite Program) Form Follows Function

Chile may be treading new ground in how it is developing its space ecosystem, but the country has long been on a steady and strategic path to space. For decades, Chile has used satellites as catalysts for establishing and improving space capabilities. In 1995, Chile’s first satellite, FASat-Alpha, was launched as a pathfinder mission. The 110-pound microsatellite was built through a collaboration between the Chilean Air Force and Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd., and the satellite was outfitted with experiments for Earth observation, GPS, and data capture and transmission. The launch coincided with the creation of the Mission Control Station in Santiago, and it was an important opportunity to build technical capacity among Air Force engineers.

When FASat-Alpha reached its end of life in 2000, it was replaced by FASat-Bravo, which was in turn replaced in 2011 by the Sistema Satelital de Observación de la Tierra (SSOT), otherwise known as FASat-Charlie. Each successive satellite helped Chile build domestic capacity to operate satellites and transfer and process the data they return. Now, Chile is pursuing the next iteration of these ongoing satellite programs, a constellation of 10 microsatellites dubbed the National Satellite System (SNSAT).

“All of the knowledge and experience the mission team gained by building FASat-Alpha, Bravo and Charlie was the base on which we created SNSAT,” said General Luis Sáez, director of space for the Chilean Air Force. “In the strategy we defined as a government four years ago, we considered how every activity needs to boost and enhance the national space system of Chile. This was considered from the beginning as a national program.”

In much of the documentation on the planned constellation, SNSAT is synonymous with the Chilean space program. This is apt, as the value to the country goes far beyond the space hardware. Under SNSAT, geospatial data will be processed at new facilities, including the National Space Center in Santiago and two additional stations. The domestic manufacturing of eight of the 10 satellites by the Chilean Air Force and Chilean universities will stir economic activity, invigorate supply chains, and build local capacity to produce space assets. The constellation will yield a dedicated SATCOM service for Chile and promote international collaboration. For example, in 2020, Chile signed a strategic partnership with the Israeli company Imagesat, giving the country access to data from the company’s 250 satellites.

Chile has already inked an agreement with SpaceX to place the SNSAT satellites in orbit in the coming years. That puts the nation on a tight timeline for developing the integrated features of Chile’s new space ecosystem, among them, the human capital that makes its operations possible.

 

Taking a Decentralized Approach to Space Capacity

As all spacefaring nations have discovered, one of the most challenging elements in building a thriving space ecosystem is nurturing the talent to build, run and grow it. In this, SNSAT has an important role.

“In this comprehensive approach, we define human capital formation as one of the key issues,” said Gen. Sáez. “For that reason, in the context of the National Space Program, we are running a program that we call the National School Space Program, which today is a pilot program running in 20 schools in different regions of Chile.”

Yet, a clear quality of the Chilean space strategy is that it recognizes the importance of nuanced programming that plays to the country’s strengths. Chile is the narrowest country in the world, and at 2,600 miles, it is about as long as the United States is wide. As a result of this geography, Chile has several regions that are each suited to a different aspect of space access and operation. The arid north provides pristine views for astronomy, while a launch facility in the south could give access to the hard-to-reach polar orbit. Near the center of the country is the Santiago Metropolitan Region, which hosts about half of the nation’s population. Capitalizing on these regional differences requires a “decentralized” approach, according to Minister Díaz. That is, space activities in each region need to be aligned with those regions’ inherent advantages and existing space infrastructure. Take education as an example.

“To become a leader in space, education is crucial,” said Díaz. “Chile being such a long, extended country, education is different in the north, central and south. In the north, the focus will be on astronomy, the mining industry, human migration and climate change. In the south, it will also be related to climate change, as well as food security, territorial sovereignty and studying the ice melts in Antarctica.”

This decentralized approach, alongside targeted investments in things like the National School Space Program and specialized university programs, is Chile’s answer to the challenge of identifying, recruiting and developing skilled human talent. The Minister noted that international collaboration is crucial, saying that cooperating nations can implement strategic partnerships with Chile and build local capacity by exchanging knowledge, professors and students.

This stated focus on collaboration is cross-cutting as well as inspiring. As Díaz said, “We enter into new partnerships with like-minded countries focused on things like the fight against climate change, migration, and most importantly, we want to create a system that is safe and sustainable.”

This perspective is an asset to the broader global space community. By building its space program with a vision for Earthly benefit, Chile is preparing to use its space capabilities to elevate and empower not just Chileans, but people the world over.


 Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.