Will Alcântara Finally Stop Being the Spaceport of the Future?

Cyclone 4 launch pad under construction. (Credit: Alcantara Space)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Brazil’s decades-long effort to launch satellites from its underused Alcântara Launch Center could finally be bearing fruit.

On Monday, Brazil and the United States signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will allow American companies to launch orbital rockets from Alcântara.

“Upon entry into force, the Agreement will establish the technical safeguards to support U.S. space launches from Brazil while ensuring the proper handling of sensitive U.S. technology consistent with U.S. nonproliferation policy, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and U.S. export control laws and regulations,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Located on the Atlantic Ocean about two degrees of the equator (closer than than Europe’s launch base in French Guiana), Alcântara is an ideal location from which to launch geosynchronous communications satellites.

Brazilian officials say that a number of established U.S. space companies — including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX — have expressed interesting in launching from the spaceport.

The opening of Alcântara comes at a time when the market for large geosynchronous satellites has shrunk. There is much more interest in smaller satellites that will operate in low- and medium Earth orbits, particularly for large constellations of spacecraft.

However, the equatorial orbit is not the only trajectory possible from Alcântara. And U.S. startup companies such as Vector and Microcosm focused on smaller satellites are also interested in flying from the center and have toured the facilities there, Brazilian officials have said.

For decades, Brazil’s attempts to develop Alcântara for orbital launches have come to naught. Thus far, the center has supported launches of sounding rockets, ballistic missiles, and Brazil’s home-ground VLS-1 small satellite launcher.

Two VSL-1 launches failed in flight. In August 2003, a VLS-1 booster killed 21 people after it exploded on the launch pad. The tragedy dealt a devastating setback to the program, which was eventually canceled.

VLS-1 was to have formed the basis of a family of boosters under the proposed Southern Cross program. However, that effort never got off the ground.

A decade-long effort to launch Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 booster from Alcântara fell apart in 2011 after numerous missed deadlines. Proposals to launch Russia’s Proton and Israel’s Shavit boosters likewise have come to nothing.