By Brad Haynes
KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) – Brazil is developing technology to send domestically-made satellites into space with its own rockets by the end of the decade, aerospace executives and officials said ahead of the launch of the nation’s first defense and communications satellite.
The launch of the French-made satellite, the first project of its kind led by Brazil’s private sector, was originally set for Tuesday but rescheduled for Thursday evening due to protests around the lift-off site in French Guyana.
The 5.8-tonne geostationary satellite will beam broadband internet from an altitude of 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) to remote parts of the South American nation and provide secure communication channels for military and government personnel.
The mission took on new urgency after revelations in 2013 that the U.S. National Security Administration had eavesdropped on Brazil’s president at the time.
“We cannot guarantee Brazil’s sovereignty as long as our defense communications are being carried by other countries’ satellites,” said Jose Raimundo Braga Coelho, president of the Brazilian Space Agency. “Brazil is a gigantic country and we need Brazilian satellites watching over it.”
The launch marks a renewed effort to expand Brazil’s long-standing aeronautics industry into space, with Embraer SA, the world’s third-largest commercial planemaker, seeking to consolidate a local supply chain.
Embraer subsidiary Visiona, a joint venture with state-run telecom Telebras, served as the prime contractor on the 1.3 billion reais ($420 million) satellite. Visiona subcontracted assembly to French group Thales SA, which also trained dozens of Brazilian engineers, and hired Arianespace for the launch.
While Brazilian industry made a small fraction of the new satellite, it could provide most of the content for a smaller class of satellite, weighing about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and orbiting around 1,000 kilometers high, according to Visiona Chief Executive Eduardo Bonini.
Bonini said a “micro-satellite” of that kind, which Visiona would be able launch within two or three years, could serve key missions in Brazil, from tracking hydroelectric reservoirs and deforestation to monitoring its remote 17,000-km border.
Coelho said researchers at Brazilian air and space institute IAE are also developing proprietary rocket technology that could deliver micro-satellites into low orbit by 2019.
“The demand is there,” Bonini said. “It’s just a matter of the government setting priorities.”
Prioritizing Brazil’s space program has gotten tougher in recent years as the country struggled with what is now its worst recession on record and the government embarked on an austerity program that has hit defense and research spending.
While Visiona awaits definition of Brazil’s next satellite, Bonini said he is seeking more stable revenue sources, such as contracts for processing images from arrays of micro-satellites.
Visiona booked about 8 million reais in sales from that service alone last year, he said.
“We’re learning how to face the valley after the peak,” he said, referring to the space industry’s dramatic revenue cycles.
(Reporting by Brad Haynes; Editing by Paul Simao)