By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - U.S. companies eager to tap into the fast-growing market for low-cost satellite launches could become the first customers when Brazil's Alcantara space center near the equator opens as a commercial spaceport, executives and Brazilian officials said.
Aerospace titans Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp in December visited the Alcantara space center, but the Brazilian space agency's launch site is especially attractive to smaller firms because its equatorial location cuts fuel costs by a third.
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Still, Brazil's aim of becoming a hot new hub in the space industry will depend on negotiating a technology safeguards agreement (TSA) with the United States to protect sensitive American space launch and satellite technology. Without it, no U.S. rocket can blast off from the South American country.
Brazil wants to attract customers by marketing itself as the cheaper alternative to Kourou, the European spaceport in neighboring French Guiana, which mostly launches big satellites. Brazilian officials are hoping to complete a U.S. TSA this year that would facilitate the opening of the commercial spaceport.
On Feb. 22, U.S. and Brazilian government representatives, along with space companies from both countries, held a conference call with a White House official who was asked whether the Trump administration would agree to a TSA with Brazil, according to a person on the call.
"We are encouraged that Brazilian officials have expressed an interest in working more closely with the United States in the space sector," a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said. She gave no further details.
The safeguard accord could be ready this year if the U.S. State Department gets negotiating permission, according to industry representatives.
Tucson, Arizona-based Vector Launch Inc, which specializes in small rockets, appears eager to launch from the Brazilian site. The company wants to undercut big payload specialists like billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX by launching so-called microsatellites from small rockets, cutting costs and wait time for clients.
"Our vision is to launch hundreds of Vector rockets into orbit to satisfy the growing market for microsatellites," said Vector Vice President Alex Rodriguez, who made a December visit to Alcantara coordinated by Boeing.
"We are closer to the equator and have an excellent site for launching microsatellites," said Brigadier Luiz Fernando Aguiar, coordinator of the Brazilian Air Force's space program, comparing the Alcantara site with Kourou.
Alcantara has radars, a runway and a seaport to unload equipment, along with plenty of open land to store rockets and build a liquid oxygen plant if needed, he said.
A previous attempt at a U.S.-Brazilian space partnership was scuttled in 2003 when the technology safeguards agreement faced resistance from the leftist government of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and was thwarted by Brazilian lawmakers. The new effort is expected to pass easily in a more conservative Brazilian Congress.
While the market for launches of large geosynchronous satellites has solidified, the Space Enterprise Council, which represents U.S. industry from launch services to satellite manufacturers, has said the expanding microsatellite sector could experience up to 600 launches for satellites under 110 pounds (50 kg) between now and 2022.
Alcantara could capture 25 percent of that market, according to the council, which has said a U.S.-Brazilian partnership would give both countries an edge in the fast-growing segment.
The cost of microsatellites is a fraction of larger satellites options, making them increasingly important for GPS navigation, Earth imagery, surveillance and internet communications.
Boeing, which chairs the Space Enterprise Council, is in talks to partner with Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's third-largest commercial planemaker and the main player in the Brazilian aerospace industry.
SpaceX was not represented on the visit to Alcantara and is not a member of the council, which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Corp and Viasat Inc.
After Brazilian officials last month said SpaceX was on the trip, the company said that was incorrect and that it was not interested in launching from Brazil.
Viasat last month entered the satellite broadband businesses in Brazil with an agreement to use capacity on the country's 5-tonne SGDC-1 geostationary satellite launched last year from Kourou and operated by state-run telecom company Telebras.
Brazil abandoned plans to build its own rocket to put large satellites in orbit after an explosion and fire in 2003 at Alcantara killed 21 people.
The country is developing a smaller rocket for microsatellites that will be launched from Alcantara next year, boosted by engines developed by the German Aerospace Center.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Will Dunham and Tom Brown)