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The key to cheaper US rocket launches may sit in Brazil’s jungle

  • Three U.S. space companies are interested in launching from an old rocket complex on Brazil's Atlantic coast.
  • The most obvious market is for launching large satellites into geosynchronous orbits, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told CNBC.
  • But small-rocket builder Vector also sees a market for launching small satellites into equatorial low-Earth orbit from Alcantara.
A satellite image of the jungle launchpad of Alcantara in the northeastern state of Maranhao, Brazil.
Space Imaging | Getty Images
A satellite image of the jungle launchpad of Alcantara in the northeastern state of Maranhao, Brazil.

There's an unearthly market blooming in the Brazilian jungle.

Aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, along with small-rocket builder Vector, have expressed interest in launching from an old rocket complex on Brazil's Atlantic coast.

The Alcantara base sits about 140 miles south of the Earth's equator, making it a prime location for launching satellites, a $260 billion business. From this spot, certain satellites can be launched more efficiently than from spaceports in the U.S.

The dormant military base "makes total sense" to be used "for launching large satellites with big rockets into geosynchronous orbits," or GEO, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, told CNBC.

These GEO satellites, which circle the globe tens of thousands of miles away, orbit at the equator to provide maximum coverage for services such as communications or broadband.

Launching from the equator itself, therefore, is advantageous because it requires less fuel. A launch from a latitude much farther north — such as NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — requires rockets sending satellites to GEO to change direction in flight to reach the equator. Sometimes called "bootlegging," that process requires firing a rocket's engines multiple times to angle into position.

Launching those same satellites from Alcantara would save as much as 20 percent more fuel compared with a location such as Florida, McDowell estimated.

Similar savings would be seen for launches to equatorial low-Earth orbit, or LEO, McDowell noted. The case for Boeing and Lockheed Martin "makes sense," McDowell said, due to the large size of GEO-bound satellites.

Tapping a new market

Vector, on the other hand, wants to use its small rockets to tap a new equatorial LEO market by launching dozens of small satellites. The company's Vector-R rocket, which is nearing its first orbital launch in July, is about one-sixth the size of the often-watched SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. At less than $3 million per launch, Vector wants to use its rocket to tap into the rapidly-growing microsatellite industry.

Traditionally, equatorial LEO has been a minuscule portion of the satellite market. Small satellites are usually destined for orbits running over the Earth's poles. Reaching those polar orbits means "an equatorial launch site isn't an advantage," McDowell said.

Vector CEO Jim Cantrell thinks the demand for equatorial LEO is already here. Last month, Cantrell expressed even more enthusiasm than Boeing and Lockheed Martin when he told CNBC his company "is very interested in the opportunity" due to the fuel efficiency advantage.

"From a satellite launch perspective, there are many who want to launch into equatorial LEO," Cantrell said, in a follow-up interview. "We have seven customers at present that are looking for this. And [launching aboard a small rocket] is one of those services no one seems able to provide, as these customers are definitely not able to find a rideshare opportunity."

These are "American and European customers" for Vector, Cantrell said, and include both start-ups and established customers. Of those looking to launch with Vector, communications satellites "are probably 75 percent of the demand," while remote sensing and imaging satellites are the remaining 25 percent, Cantrell said. The Vector-R rocket can lift about 80 kilograms into equatorial LEO, the rocketeer noted.

The Guiana Space Centre is another launch complex in the region, located to the north in French Guiana, a French territory. The complex is positioned around 345 miles north of the equator, providing similar launch advantages as Alcantara. Operational for nearly half a century, the Guiana Space Centre is owned by the European Space Agency and operated by the French national space agency.

"[The launch complex in] French Guiana has been a reason why [European rocket company] Arianespace has gotten so much of the commercial GEO market since it started in the 1980s," McDowell said.

The future for Alcantara

Reopening Alcantara would allow U.S. companies to equal the playing field against European competitors. But the Brazilian site isn't ready for rocket launches just yet. Alcantara has been little used since August 2003, when a rocket with two satellites onboard exploded on the launchpad, killing 21 people and damaging the launchpad's infrastructure.

General view of the wreckage of the satellite launch rocket pad at Brazil's space center in Alcantara.
Evaristo SA | AFP | Getty Images
General view of the wreckage of the satellite launch rocket pad at Brazil's space center in Alcantara.

Brazil's defense minister, Raul Jungmann, has said the complex may be able to support up to five launchpads, but McDowell expects it will be "at least 5 years" until the first U.S. orbital launch from Alcantara occurs.

Vector's minimal infrastructure required — its rocket needs little more than a flat concrete foundation — means it may be able to get up and running a little more quickly.

"It would take us years to get service in place, so the soonest I could see us launching from Alcantara is 2020," Cantrell added.

Early talks have been reported to be positive but the remaining hurdle to a deal with Brazil is the signing of a Technology Safeguards Agreement with the U.S. to protect sensitive information about any rockets exported to Brazil.

A political window of opportunity may be at hand, as Brazilian lawmakers and military officials alike have expressed eagerness to establish a new TSA, matched in turn by the interest of U.S. companies. A non-proliferation agreement with the U.S. may see Brazil become the next step in an increasingly valuable space industry.