Alcantara launch center
Alcantara launch center. Credit: Alcantara Cyclone Space

WASHINGTON — While a recent agreement signed between the United States and Brazil has been touted as enabling American launches from a Brazilian spaceport, the agreement’s biggest effect may be on other aspects of aerospace cooperation between the two nations.

A technology safeguards agreement (TSA) was signed March 18 by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford and Brazilian Minister of Foreign Relations Ambassador Ernesto Araujo, the State Department announced. They signed the agreement during a trip to the United States by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The TSA establishes protections for American space technologies exported to Brazil for space launches there. The agreement, the State Department noted, ensures “the proper handling of sensitive U.S. technology consistent with U.S. nonproliferation policy, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and U.S. export control laws and regulations.”

This is not the first time the two countries signed such an agreement. A TSA signed in April 2000 failed to take force when the Brazilian Senate refused to ratify it, citing concerns about a loss of sovereignty at its spaceport because of the restricted access Brazilian officials would have to American vehicles and equipment there. Officials are more optimistic that this TSA will win ratification.

The TSA would allow American companies to export launch vehicles and related systems to Brazil for launch from the country’s Alcântara Launch Center, a spaceport that has long appeared desirable to launch companies because of its location about two degrees south of the Equator. The site, though, has yet to host a successful orbital launch.

“Brazil’s proximity to the Equator makes it an ideal launch location,” President Donald Trump said in remarks with Bolsonaro during a joint press conference at the White House March 19.

“It’s actually an incredible location when you study it and when you see it,” he noted. “But because of the location, tremendous amounts of money would be saved. To put it very simply: The flights are a lot shorter.”

Strictly speaking, launches from sites near the Equator, like Alcântara, are not shorter, but are able to place heavier payloads into orbit because of the higher rotational velocity of the Earth near the Equator. That effect has, in the past, driven projects like Sea Launch, which transported a mobile launch platform to the Equator in the Pacific because of the boost in payload capacity it provided to its Zenit-3SL rocket.

While Alcântara may be a desirable launch site from an orbital mechanics perspective, it has struggled to attract customers. Brazil developed the site for its own small launch vehicle program, VLS, but that program was cancelled after two failed launches in the late 1990s and a third vehicle that exploded on the pad during pre-launch preparations in 2003, killing 21 technicians.

Brazil later entered into a joint venture with Ukraine to launch Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rockets from Alcântara, but ended that in 2015 after financial and technical problems. The Cyclone-4 is now being considered for launches from a proposed launch site in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Brazilian officials have claimed that several American companies are interested in launching from Alcântara. The only company that has publicly said it’s considering the site is Vector, a small launch vehicle developer who has yet to attempt its first orbital launch. “We are excited for the possibility for both polar and equatorial launches out of the same site as well as the opportunity to grow our anywhere, anytime launch approach,” the company said March 19.

Several factors could work against Alcântara, including available infrastructure, logistics, operating costs and regulatory issues. In addition, with growing demand for remote sensing and broadband constellations that require satellites in high-inclination orbits, and a continued depression in geostationary orbit satellite orders, a site near the Equator is no longer as advantageous as it once was.

One U.S. government official said the value of the TSA may not come from allowing American launches to take place from Brazil but from other forms of cooperation between the two countries.

“While people focused very much on Alcântara launches because it’s a very visible, very symbolic kind of thing to look at,” said Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, during a March 21 speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium, “there’s more to it than that.”

The TSA, he said, covers a wide range of aerospace collaborations between the two countries, including satellite technologies. “While the launch part is the most visible part of it, I think it’s really not going be probably the largest part of it. It’s going to be these other, broader aerospace activities as Brazil becomes more integrated into the global supply chain for aerospace products and as they start to step up and do more work also on the satellite side.”

“We’ll see if launches and so forth happen. The market’s going to take care of that,” he added. “But I think it opens the way to greater aerospace cooperation between U.S. companies and Brazil.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...