With a budget surplus and roaring economic growth, Brazil has set it sights on some significant new satellite and space initiative. The South American giant has recorded some moderate success throughout its space history, but the country’s latest efforts, spread across several fronts, are intended to put Brazil on a more equal footing with the world’s space superpowers.
Brazil has owned and operated telecom satellites for the past two decades. While the country has yet to develop an indigenous communication satellite manufacturing industry, the country’s “Brazil’s ambitions are much broader and date back many years, with its plans to develop scientific satellite manufacturing, test and tracking capabilities, and an indigenous launch vehicle contained in its complete space plan announced in 1981,” says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
There have been many delays and setbacks along the way, including changes in government, severe budget problems and a 2003 launch pad accident during preparations for the launch of a VLS-1 rocket that killed 21 people, but “there have also been significant successes,” Logsdon says. “Brazil has developed and operated several of its own satellites, although it had to turn to the United States for launch services. It has been a leader in space collaboration with China, as the two countries have jointly developed the CBERS (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) series and has also cooperated with Russia and Ukraine.”
Aggressive Government Plans
Early in 2006, Brazil’s government launched a public relations initiative aimed at showcasing the benefits the country’s space program provides to society and industry, and also began a new push in space led by the Brazilian National Space Agency and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology that is the country’s lead technical center for space. The main focus of Brazil’s space program will be Earth observation and the launching of five new satellites throughout the next nine years, says Gilberto Câmara, a scientist who became director of INPE in December 2005.
In 2005, Brazil‘s aerospace industry had the best year in its history, with sales of $4.2 billion, but 90 percent of those revenues were derived from the export of regional and business jets produced by Embraer, Brazil’s second largest exporter. While aircraft technology has been developed indigenously, international cooperation will be required for space technology development, “mainly because Brazilian government space funding remains limited, even if growing ($97 million in 2005),” says Rachel Villain, director of space & communications at Euroconsult in Paris. Investment with China for the development of Earth observation satellites and with Russia for launch vehicle development make up about 87 percent of the civil space budget. “Cooperation with Russia will increase to include geo-satellite technology, with a government plan to develop a domestic satcom system of three small geo-satellites based on the Yamal bus of RKK Energia,” she says. Cooperation with China is likely to decrease as the second-generation of CBERS satellites will be developed with more Brazilian content — ultimately more than 80 percent — as compared to the first three of the first generation satellites. “Brazil intends to become ultimately autonomous for satellite and launch vehicle technology as Japan and India did in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively,” she says.
The re-election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in October to another four-year term could affect the country’s space plans, says Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Trade Solutions. “His administration will continue to be besieged by congressional investigations and judicial prosecutions. Lula might not escape them, as the corruption scandals reached ever closer to him, although his culpability, or lack thereof, has not yet been proven. Given that margins are becoming lower and lower in the satellite and telecommunications industry, a Lula government, constrained by scandal-management, is likely to tinker with rates and licenses to assuage political pressures. This forebodes an unstable regulatory environment for telecommunications and satellites and, possibly lower profits.”