On Tuesday, the Trump administration signed a preliminary agreement with Brazil that could ever lead US rockets launched from the South American coastal port. President Trump praised the idea of using the site and argued that "because of the site, big money would be saved." But while the launch site offers some important benefits to US launch suppliers, it is possible that these benefits may not be enough to pull all the large rocket companies into the area.
The greatest access to Brazil's space gate is its proximity to the equator. The site, called Alcântara Launch Center, is located at a latitude of just 2.3 degrees south. For anyone launching a rocket, it's a juicy place. There are not many options on earth to start it near the equator, and the site would make it much easier for satellite operators to send payloads in an equatorial orbit. In addition, rockets in the equator get an extra step of speed thanks to the Earth's rotation, which helps rockets save fuel.
But the logistics of setting up a new launch site in Brazil may be a problem for some. The major US rocket companies, such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin, already have several options to start from the US that are relatively close to the equator. A new website would require a lot of investment in advance to create the basic infrastructure in Brazil to support each company's unique rocket design. It is a lot of money and works for a small advantage in flights. Plus overseas shipping to Brazil can add an extra layer of time and money that would not be a problem when starting from the United States.
There are some launch suppliers on the smaller end of the rocket scale who see great opportunities in Brazil. Companies such as the startup Vector, which only focus on the launch of small satellites, have openly advocated the opportunity to launch from Alcântara. It would allow them to start missions that they simply cannot do in the United States because of their smaller size. Because the company's hardware is not as big as a Falcon 9 or an Atlas V rocket, very little investment is needed to make the launchpad infrastructure. "I think it will really be the domain of future small rockets going there," said Jim Cantrell, CEO and founder of Vector, The Verge .
Since then, Brazil has been looking for international partnerships to bring other countries vehicles to Alcântara. The country also held the Bush administration back in 2000 to get commercial launches to the site, but these efforts were met with opposition from Brazilian legislators. Now Brazil is trying again. In 2018, the government invited two large US space industry players, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to visit Alcântara, according to a report in Reuters . The goal is to offer a cheaper place than the nearby Guiana Space Center in South America French Guiana where all Europe's rockets fly.
Alcântara has some impressive geographical benefits needed for a space port. It is located on the coast of Brazil, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It's the key to a launch site, so many rockets launch east to match the direction of the Earth's orbit. Starting over a large water source is important for safety, as it reduces the risk that a falling rocket part hits someone on the ground or damages someone's property. That is why US launches are in coastal areas, such as Cape Canaveral, Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Brazil has a small advantage over Cape Canaveral, which is about 28.5 degrees north. Being close to the equator is great for sending satellites to a type of orbit called a geostationary orbit. This is a road 22,000 miles above the Earth's equator where satellites travel at the same speed as the Earth's rotation. The result is that the satellites are basically hovering over the same patch of the earth all the time. It is a perfect place to deposit a communications satellite or surveillance probe that must always look at the same region on the planet.
Getting a geostationary orbit from Florida takes some extra work. Rockets must insert a satellite on a path slightly away from the equator (at a 28.5 degree slope), and the satellites then need to change their direction in orbit by burning an inboard engine. It requires fuel that takes up space on a satellite and affects the construction of the vehicle. In a place like Alcântara or Guyana space center, such a plan change would be small, requiring less fuel.
In addition, the Earth actually moves faster at the equator than other points on the planet, which is good news for rockets. The Earth's equator is its widest part, so it has a long way to travel each time the planet makes a full 24-hour rotation. A location on the equator must go much further than a site near the poles, for example. So a rocket launch on the equator gets an extra speed increase, making it easier for the vehicle to reach the extra high speeds needed to achieve orbit. The rocket does not need so much fuel, which makes launching more efficient and possibly enabling companies to pack more cargo on a flight.
"You can use a less powerful rocket to launch the same satellite, or you can launch a larger satellite with the same launch vehicle," says Lakshmi Kantha, a professor of space technology at the University of Colorado Boulder, The Verge .
Who actually wants to start from Brazil?
Are all these benefits sufficient to attract large US companies to Brazil? Sending rockets over water is not a huge inconvenience. In fact, Arianespace sends its rockets by boat from Europe and Russia to French Guiana. ULA also ships parts of its Delta IV Heavy by boat, and NASA used to send the space shuttle's external tank from New Orleans to Florida. "Large ships are used to accommodate oversized hardware," says Dennis Jenkins, a space scientist at the California Science Center who worked with the space shuttle, The Verge . "Most major rockets throughout history have been sent at least in part at sea."
But moving by boat is time consuming and a bit expensive, especially when traveling to Brazil via the Panama Canal. "It is, of course, one of the problems with ships – they are very slow," says Jenkins. Having a launch site closer to a place where a rocket is built makes things more efficient. Recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted that the company's next-generation rocket, Starship, was to be built in Texas and Florida, next to two of SpaceX's launch sites. Plus, places like Texas and Florida are still quite far south, so the performance advantage of moving even further south will not be for US companies, as it would be for Russia or European nations.
Then there is the cost of equipping Alcântara to meet the needs of a launch supplier. For larger rockets, companies need to add concrete pads, towers and tanks for tanks to the surrounding area to support flights of their vehicles. Creating all this in the Brazilian jungle, where there is minimal infrastructure in place already, will require a lot of work and investment. Moreover, all this would be of service to order more assignments for geostationary orbit, which is a type of flight that has seen a recession in the market.
SpaceX already told Reuters that it was not interested to build at Alcântara and refused to comment The Verge . Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who oversees the United Launch Alliance, confirmed that they had looked at the site but did not make any major plans to invest there yet. "While we have not made any concrete plans at this time, the potential for a new launch site is an encouraging development given the global interest in rapid and effective launch opportunities," a Lockheed Martin representative said in a statement to The Verge. Boeing refused to comment
Ultimately, Alcântara can be a better investment for rocket companies that do not look like SpaceX or ULA, those who are completely chasing another market. Companies like Vector can only launch smaller satellites to low Earth orbit, and these types of probes cannot change their directions significantly in space. So if a small satellite operator wants to enter a lower orbit over the equator, they must basically launch at the [equator]. rockets to low ground path equatorial pathways, "Cantrell says." Virtual none. "Vector hopes to be one of the first companies to offer you an alternative and claim that about 10 customers have asked for it.
An extra boost in speed for a small launcher like Vector means much more than for SpaceX or ULA. It may be the difference between starting 200 pounds and 300 pounds, opening the company for different types of assignments. In addition, infrastructure and transportation costs for Vector smaller rockets are less discomfort. "Everything we really need is a concrete pillow that we already built in Alaska, and we need permission to start," Cantrell says, adding that the company's rocket can fit inside an aircraft.
Alcântara is nowhere near to be open to the US rocket industry yet. The United States signed what is called a technology protection contract with the company, which is the same type of agreement that Bush signed in 2000. The deal must be approved by the Brazilian Congress, and if that happens, there is still a lot of regulatory hurdle to go through. However, if one day is allowed, the site seems much more suitable for smaller rockets than larger ones.