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PeruSat 1
PeruSAT-1, built by Airbus Defence and Space for the government of Peru, has delivered more than 70,000 images since its launch in September 2016. (credit: Airbus Defence and Space)

Latin America’s space programs: an update

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Latin American space programs have continued to develop and expand in recent years, with countries like Bolivia and Peru achieving major victories after the successful launches of new satellites. While there has been the occasional loss, like the 2015 destruction of a Mexican satellite aboard a Russian rocket, regional space programs have in general continued to grow, with additional launches planned for the near future.

The Peru satellite project has generally been regarded as a success, as the Peruvian government has declared that “the investment it has made into the satellite programme has already been recouped.”

This commentary is an update to the author’s 2012 article on the subject (see “Latin America’s space programs in 2012”, The Space Review, August 27, 2012), aimed at discussing new developments among Latin America’s programs and what they signal for the future.

Recent successes

This article will not attempt to enumerate every single test and initiative that Latin American space programs have carried out in the past five years. Rather, this will focus on highlighting particular accomplishments by different nations to provide a broad overview of recent developments.

As mentioned in the introduction, two successful launches that occurred in recent years were part of Peru’s and Bolivia’s growing programs. In the case of Peru, its high-resolution Earth observation satellite, Peru-Sat1, was constructed by Airbus Defense and Space and launched from French Guiana in September 2016. The Airbus-Peru deal included the construction of a center (Centro Nacional de Operaciones de Imágenes Satelitales: CNOIS) outside Lima so the Peruvians can control their satellite. The project has generally been regarded as a success, as the Peruvian government has declared that “the investment it has made into the satellite programme has already been recouped,” according to a December 2017 Airbus press statement that also explained that in its first year of operations, the satellite has delivered more than 71,000 images. Peru-Sat1 was also praised for helping monitor the damage caused by floods that affected the country’s northern regions in early 2017.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s new telecommunications satellite, Tupac Katari (TK-1), was constructed by China and launched in 2013. Bolivia’s space agency (Agencia Boliviana Espacial: ABE) manages the satellite, which is aimed at improving access of Bolivian citizens to telecommunications and media services. It is worth noting that the project has not been without criticism, as an August 20, 2017, article by the Bolivian daily El Deber explained that ABE’s high prices deter some Bolivian telecommunications companies from utilizing the satellite’s broadband services. In spite of price issues, agencies like Bolivia’s customs service (Aduana Nacional) and the state-owned oil company (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos: YPFB) already utilize the satellite, in addition to numerous radio and television stations. The telecommunication company Viva has stated that thanks to the satellite, it can provide better broadband services to customers in rural and isolated areas.

As for Colombia, the country’s domestically-manufactured satellite UAPSAT was put into orbit in January 2014 after being launched from Wallops Island, Virginia. The Colombian daily El Colombiano has described UAPSAT as the “first satellite manufactured with Colombian parts and systems,” albeit with support from the Peruvian university Alas Peruanas.

One strategy that Astana could utilize to approach Latin America is to provide potential customers from the region more cost-efficient launch services.

These examples highlight the different types of services new satellites are rendering for Latin American countries, ranging from better access to communication services to helping monitor their territories, particularly after extreme weather events. Colombia’s UAPSAT satellite is also worth noting, as this was a domestically manufactured platform, demonstrating how more countries want to develop their own satellite-building capabilities (more on this later).

In spite of these recent successes, there has been one loss, though not a direct cause of Latin American programs themselves: in May 2015, a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur space center (Kazakhstan) failed, causing the loss of a Mexican telecommunications satellite called Centenario.

The Latin American-Kazakh connection

One aspect to keep in mind is the different launch centers that Latin American countries utilize to deploy their new satellites, such as include China, French Guiana, and the United States. It is also noteworthy that Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome has been utilized by several Latin American nations for launches in recent years.

For example, back in 2007, Colombia’s Libertad 1 cubesat was launched from Baikonur. Four years later, in 2011, a Russian-built Proton rocket launched Mexico’s QuetzSat-1. More recently, in 2014, Chasqui-1, a nanosatellite constructed by a Peruvian state university (Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria: UNI), was launched aboard a Russian rocket. Finally, in July 2017, a Russian Soyuz rocket left Baikonur with a payload of dozens of satellites, including a nanosatellite manufactured by an Ecuadorian university (Universidad Tecnológica Equinoccial) with Russian assistance. A June 15, 2017, article by Russian government news service Sputnik Mundo highlighted that this successful launch meant that for the first time Ecuador had a satellite in orbit that was constructed by one of its universities.

The reason why Kazakhstan is singled out as a launch center is because Kazakh-Latin American relations are fairly limited (see the author’s December 2017 commentary, “The Eurasian Economic Union and Latin America: What could 2018 Bring?”). Hence one strategy that Astana could utilize to approach Latin America is to provide potential customers from the region more cost-efficient launch services.

What will the future bring?

As for future initiatives, Chile is arguably the nation is most need to launch a new satellite, as Fasat Charlie has been in orbit since 2011. Back in 2016, the Chilean media was already discussing when will the government order a replacement for the satellite, but so far no new project has been announced. Even more, a January 2 op-ed in the Chilean daily El Mostrador, which discussed the country’s natural security challenges, called out the lack of progress regarding a replacement for Fasat Charlie. The argues that “so far there is no new information regarding a final decision, even though Chile requires satellites to strengthen its telecommunications industry and to monitor its territory in order anticipate possible natural disasters.” It will be interesting to see if president-elect Sebastian Piñera will make the acquisition of a new satellite a priority when he returns to power this March (he was previously president from 2010 to 2014.)

As for Brazil, in October, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense announced the drafting of a new blueprint to revamp the country’s space program. This proposal includes establishing a national council for space affairs (Conselho Nacional do Espaço: CNE) and an executive committee for space (Comitê Executivo do Espaço: CEE). It is unclear if current President Michel Temer will be able to make this proposal become law, given the year he has left in office, or if a decision will be made by the next president: Brazil will carry out general elections this October and the next head of state takes office on January 1, 2019. The South American giant is well known for its ambitious space program, exemplified by the Alcântara center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara: CLA), so hopefully the blueprint helps create a new momentum so it continues to grow. It is also worth noting that there are also plans to expand the CLA’s facilities, but this goal has encountered resistance from the communities that live in the area. Coincidentally, also in October, Paraguay held its first ever conference on space issues at the country’s Central Bank. The landlocked nation’s space agency (Agencia Especial del Paraguay: AEP) organized the event, and brought renowned special guests like Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes, to develop interest among the audience members to support AEP.

Brazil’s blueprint, as well as Costa Rica’s and Argentina’s new satellites, demonstrate the ongoing interest of Latin American nations to develop their space programs.

As for upcoming launches, one country that will have a new satellite in orbit this year is Argentina, as the country’s space commission (Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales: CONAE) is finishing the construction of its SAOCOM 1A satellite. The platform is part of an ambitious project between Argentina and Italy to establish a satellite network (Sistema Italo-Argentino de Satelites para la Gestion de Emergencias: SIASGE), and will reportedly be launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in August. Similarly, in October, Costa Rica announced the successful construction of Proyecto Irazú, Central America’s first domestically-manufactured satellite. The satellite, a joint project by Central America’s aerospace association (Asociación Centroamericana de Aeronáutica y del Espacio: ACAE) and a Costa Rican university (Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica: TEC), is a cubesat that will be utilized to measure carbon gas emissions. The satellite will now be sent to Japan for final tests before it is launched.

Brazil’s blueprint, as well as Costa Rica’s and Argentina’s new satellites, demonstrate the ongoing interest of Latin American nations to develop their space programs. While these countries do not yet have the capability to launch crewed spacecraft, the fact that several countries are domestically manufacturing satellites is a promising step that should be praised, and also deserves the support of the international community.

Final thoughts

Latin American space programs have enjoyed significant accomplishments in recent years as countries like Bolivia and Peru have modern new satellites in orbit that support telecommunications and surveillance projects, while Argentina, Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico have domestically constructed their own platforms. There have even been bureaucratic developments, as Brazil is looking to revamp its new space program while Paraguay is attempting to jumpstart its own. Recent years have brought more successes than failures, notwithstanding the loss of a Mexican satellite and the delay in replacing Chile’s Fasat Charlie.

Earth’s orbit is increasingly cluttered with space debris, but hopefully there is still space for Latin America’s ambitious programs.