Brazil Leads Latin America’s Space Ambitions

The leading space program in Latin America is that of Brazil. The Barreira do Inferno Launch Center, for instance, began launching rockets in 1965. The center has since launched over two thousand sounding rockets, and it furthermore provides satellite tracking services. Another main facility is the Alcantara base, which in 2004 successfully launched its first rocket into space. Brazil is now aiming to use Alcantara to launch commercial rockets; it wants to take part in the growing international commercial space sector. In December 2017, Boeing and Lockheed Martin visited Alcantara, indicating customers are interested in Brazil as a launch site. Earlier this year, the government created an inter-ministerial committee to strategically develop the space industry.

Researchers at Habitat Marte in Rio Grande do Norte.

Beyond Brazil, space programs in Latin America are not particularly strong. Argentina was once known for launching its own rockets, but amidst its current economic difficulties, it seems to be losing its independence as a space power. There is in fact a proliferation of space agencies in Latin America – even Paraguay has one. But regardless of whether they have their own space programs, many Latin American countries rely on governments outside the region to launch their satellites. China in particular is increasingly providing launch services.

To learn more about Brazil’s space sector, Filling Space spoke with Professor Julio Dantas de Rezende of the Universidade Federal of Rio Grande do Norte. He is involved in several efforts to spur the sector’s development, particularly in the state of Rio Grande do Norte.

What are you doing to advance Brazil’s participation in space exploration?

In Brazil, there are three main cities related to space: Natal, São José dos Campos, and Alcântara. I’m based in the first of these cities, Natal, which is the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte. I’m a professor at Universidade Federal of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), and I’m also a director of innovation at the governmental Foundation of Research Support (FAPERN). I’m very focused on Rio Grande do Norte’s innovation system.

In Natal, there are several players in the space sector. Besides UFRN, there is the Barreira do Inferno Launch Center (CLBI), the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and an air force training center. In this context, I participated in the creation of the state’s Aerospace Forum, which has bi-monthly meetings and a WhatsApp group with daily interactions. This group seeks to address six challenges. First is to provide, stimulate, and coordinate research development and technology transfers that are of interest to the local, national, and international aerospace economy. Second is to provide training for and to popularize aerospace science and technology. Third is to organize, articulate, and support events in the aerospace area (e.g. congresses, hackathons, local technical visits, and national and international competitions). Fourth is to capture investments, meaning to attract companies in the aerospace area to Rio Grande do Norte, and to more generally stimulate entrepreneurship and strengthen the space-related innovation economy in Rio Grande do Norte. Fifth is to provide support to aerospace tourism in the state. Sixth is to help develop public policies related to the aerospace sector.

I also manage Habitat Marte, a research station where scientists and engineers can live and work as if they are on Mars. Habitat Marte is inspired by the research stations in Utah and the Arctic of The Mars Society, of which I intend to start the Brazilian chapter. Habitat Marte would be the first station supported by The Mars Society in the southern hemisphere. So far, Habitat Marte’s activities are largely STEM research and popularization initiatives. We have presented our research at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany, at the Annual International Mars Society Convention in California, and at other scientific conferences in Brazil. We have also developed lectures for students. I consider Habitat Marte’s core focuses to be sharing research and spreading the development of space- and sustainability-related skills.

How does what you are doing fit into the larger trajectory of Brazil’s space program?

I believe Rio Grande do Norte can be a space hotspot for Brazil, and for Latin America more generally. It has a rich aerospace history. The city of Parnamirim, located in the Natal metropolitan area, had an important airfield during World War II that received flights from the United States going to combat in Europe. American president Franklin Roosevelt dubbed Natal the “Trampoline to Victory” for supplying the Allies in Africa. At one point during the war, Natal was the busiest airport in the world, with flights taking off and landing every three minutes. Rio Grande do Norte can build off this aerospace history.

Habitat Marte is advancing Rio Grande do Norte’s potential space economy. It has already conducted six research missions; the first occurred in December 2017. Habitat Marte receives technically oriented visits from schools and universities that are interested in space science (UFRN, for instance, has a group of students interested in rocket propulsion research and development). Habitat Marte spurs students by challenging them to think disruptively. We also take lectures outside the research station to other parts of the state to spark children’s interest in space science and technology. One key step for advancing Rio Grande do Norte’s space economy is to apply space technologies to help develop rural communities.

Why have you decided to dedicate yourself to this effort?

In 2018, during my postdoc at the University of Central Florida, I was researching how business incubators and science parks help create clean technology companies. Simultaneously, the space scene in Florida impressed me, and I realized the important intersection of space technologies and environmental sustainability. Looking at all the aerospace companies in Florida got me thinking: What could I do to stimulate the aerospace sector back in my state in Brazil, Rio Grande do Norte? I contacted The Mars Society’s research station in Utah, and then I thought I should create the first Mars research station in Brazil.

Near the small city of Caiçara do Rio do Vento, which is located in Rio do Grande’s semiarid region, I was already coordinating a project called the Nucleus of Research in Engineering, Science, and Sustainability of the Semiarid (NUPECS); it has four facilities built with recycled materials promotes education about sustainability. Considering this landscape, I proposed it to be the home for Habitat Marte, conceiving of the center as a tool of empowerment and inclusiveness for the region. The station is now up and running. As I already mentioned, we have conducted six missions to date. The main challenge at this point is to secure a steady line of sponsorship, grants, or some other kind of funding to support Habitat Marte’s educational and research infrastructure.