The Latin American Space Agency gets off the ground

The Latin American Space Agency gets off the ground


17 | 01 | 2022


ALCE starts from national space budgets of $100 million, compared to NASA's $18.5 billion or ESA's $5.5 billion, but its objectives are also more modest.

In the picture

Prototype of the projectTronador II inside a hangar at the Punta Indio Spaceport in Argentina [Casa Rosada].

The Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (LACA) was established in September 2021, during the 6th CELAC Summit, with the participation of seven countries: Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Honduras and Costa Rica (plus Colombia and Peru as observers). The absence of Brazil and the joint drive of Mexico and Argentina seem to denote some of the political conditioning factors that have interfered with regional integration processes in the past. In any case, with an ambitious horizon - exploration and exploitation of the moon and other celestial bodies - the immediate steps are modest enough, due to budgetary realism: putting a nanosatellite into orbit this year.

The projectwas promoted by Mexico and Argentina in October 2020, inviting their continental neighbours to the signatureof the "Declaration on the constitution of the regional mechanism for cooperation in the space field". The initiative was publicly presented the following month and finally on 18 September 2021 the agreementConstitutive frameworkof the 6th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), held in Mexico City, was signed. The agency was born "as an international organisation in charge of coordinating cooperation activities in the space field of Latin American and Caribbean countries, for the peaceful use and exploration of outer space, the Moon and other celestial bodies", according to the Argentine government.

It is not intended to supplant possible national initiatives, but rather to take advantage of joint synergies: greater budget, cost sharing, exchangeof technology... Thus, the modelto follow is not so much NASA as the European Space Agency (ESA), which does not cancel out national projects, but rather, on the basis of cooperation, is committed to more ambitious goals. The Mexican government has presented it as "a modelof regional cooperation". The details of the initiative have not yet been finalised, so it remains unclear, among other things, what financial contributions the countries will make and where the agency's headquarters will be located. The agency does not yet have its own website or logo.

The idea had been maturing for some time. It was launched at the Space Summit of the Americas in 2006, and since then the international degree programopened on the occasion of the new space age has only given urgency: Latin America should not be left behind at a time when not only the major powers are already taking advantage of space, but also medium-sized countries and numerous private companies, which see the new horizon as a business and technological opportunity development.

Given that the budgetary possibilities of each Latin American country, even the larger ones, are limited, especially at a time of international economic difficulties, the creation of the ALCE makes special sense. There has previously been some bilateral cooperation, such as that between Brazil and Argentina in the launching of maritime observation satellites, or Bolivia's willingness to share high-definition images from its observation satellite with Paraguay's recently created Space Agency. The region is now open to the possibility of multilateral cooperation.

The resources allocated to space by Latin American countries have generally been small. The largest budgetto date has been from Argentina, with 81.5 million dollars; the Mexican Space Agency, the other major promoter of the initiative, has only 3 million. Thus, adding up the contributions that have been made at the national level, only a total of 100 million dollars is reached (Quito closed its Ecuadorian Space high schoolin 2018, after an annual investment of 6 million dollars in its six years of operation, average).

This amount is very small compared to NASA's $18.5 billion, Russia's Roscosmos' $5.6 billion or ESA's $5.5 billion. Nevertheless, ALCE's immediate goals are realistic. The purposefor this year is the launch of a nanosatellite with the mission statementto track oceans and agricultural plantations. As a next step, while participating countries finalise their diarySpace 2030, is the launch of a constellation of nanosatellites for a variety of uses.

It is important to mention that, in addition to the financial contribution of member states, the ALCE also aspires to have the participation of private investors. BIn fact, non-governmental civilian initiatives will play a leading role in the new space age, as is being seen in the US with the developments of Space X, Blue Origin and Boeing. On a smaller scale, companies such as Argentina's Skyloom, which aims to launch a satellite networkwith linklasers, and Puerto Rico's Instarz, which has designed a fully equipped lunar ecosystem for astronauts to live and work on the Moon for at least a year, are also making inroads into the market.

Absence of Brazil

The above-mentioned figure of expensewould be more than doubled if Brazil's investment in this field were taken into account. However, the largest country in the region, which also has the most developed aeronautical industry, has not wanted to join project. Presented at the frameworkof CELAC, a forum in which Brazil has not participated in recent years due to the decision of Jair Bolsonaro's government, the projectis not attractive enough for Brasilia at the moment; Brazil thinks it can obtain greater advantages by remaining on the sidelines, seeking some subjectof partnership directly with the United States. Its absence from CELAC, in any case, is ideological, and Brazil could rejoin the organisation after a change of government; on the other hand, Brazilian participation in the ALCE, which is supposed to be governed by technical criteria, without the need for political communion with CELAC, is also possible.

Brazil's non-integration in the ALCE is a significant element, which may detract from the possibilities of project. Brazil is the country in the region with the greatest involvement in this sector, as clearly indicated by the issueof its own devices launched into outer space, although figures vary according to sources, as some of the launches made by countries, normally commissioned to others, are not communicated to the international community (half of the Latin American countries do not belong to the Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, or COPUOS).

Of the 31 conventional satellites launched into orbit to date by Latin American countries and indexed by the United Nations, 14 belong to Brazil (45.1%) and 6 to Argentina (19.3%). These percentages are reduced if all the objects launched into outer space are taken into account, since of the 113 total objects, 37 belong to Brazil (32.7%) and 17 to Argentina (15%) - in this last scale, Mexico ties with Argentina, while Uruguay surpasses them after having begun to stand out in the field of nanosatellites -, but Brazil's pre-eminent position is equally evident.

However, despite having instructionslaunch sites, particularly Alcántara (it also has a launch site at Barrera del Infierno), Brazil has most often needed the space agencies of other countries to put these objects into orbit. This has been the case for the rest of the Latin American countries, which have had to rely on resources and facilities from Russia, China, the US or neighbouring French Guiana, where ESA operates.

The geographical location at or near the equator, however, is an advantage for several countries in the region, which with the necessary investment could bid to become effective launch sites. The tropical areais a better location than the sites used by the US for space operations.

Mexico-Argentina Entente

The absence of Brazil in the implementation of the ALCE could encourage the Argentine effort. Since the beginning of the degree programspace Argentina wanted to have an advantageous position. Only five months after the US put the first men on the moon in 1969, the Argentines became the fourth nation to succeed in launching a living creature into space (the monkey Juan), after the USSR, the US and France. Other developments were the projectCóndor II missile launcher or the more recent projectTronador rocket probe, which aims to place satellites weighing up to 750 kilos into orbit and is being tested at the Punta Indio launch centre (while the construction of a future spaceport at the Puerto Belgrano naval base is underway). The Tronador programme was born from the partnershipof the Argentinean state agency, the National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE), with scientific researchinstitutions in the country.

While in the first space age Argentina looked askance at Brazil, at a time of special rivalry between the two neighbours, there have also been opportunities for cooperation between the two, such as the LLAMA (Large Latin American Millimetre Array) mega-telescope projectand the SABIA-Mar maritime observation satellite.

These are initiatives that fit perfectly into the subjectof programmes to be carried out by the ALCE. As specified by Argentina in the statementfor the creation of this regional agency, among the activities that are expected to begin to be promoted "is the need to generate spatial information related to climate change and coordinate efforts for the managementof environmental emergencies". Thus, it is expected to develop "an early warning system for the prevention of disasters caused by natural and anthropic phenomena, based on the exchangeof datasatellites and the adoption of common methodologies and tools that can be used in the region".

The commitment acquired between Argentina and Mexico for promotethe ALCE responds to a moment of political alignment between both nations (between the governments of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Alberto Fernández), determined to promote CELAC and other regional integration initiatives. The partnershipbetween Latin America's second and third largest countries is absolutely necessary, as Brazil is not involved, for a projectof this kind subjectto be viable. But at the same time, Brazil's absence and the Mexican-Argentine entente follow a political game that does not augur well for the ALCE.