Argentina, United States Partner in Space

By Dialogo
November 21, 2011

BUENOS AIRES — The United States and Argentina have signed a long-anticipated Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Peaceful Use of Outer Space.
The bilateral treaty, signed Oct. 25, updates a 1991 framework agreement that was extended until 1996, when it expired. Scientists in both countries welcomed the accord, which lays out guidelines and procedures to be applied to present and future cooperation in areas of common interest like Earth monitoring and exploration.
The signing follows on the heels of the successful joint launch of an Argentine satellite June 10 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. That marked the fourth satellite launched by Argentina's National Commission on Space Activity (known by its Spanish acronym, CONAE), together with NASA.
Since the 1990s, the two countries have collaborated in the development and launch of Argentina’s SAC-series satellites, which gather data on natural resources, human activity and climate.
“Cooperation between NASA and CONAE extends back more than 20 years, when in the 1980s we began preparing for the 1996 launch of SAC-B, which was then followed — out of order — by SAC-A in 1998 and SAC-C in 2000,” said Fernando Hisas, manager of CONAE´s SAC-D-Aquarius program.
“Both parties benefit have benefited from SAC satellite collaboration, with CONAE gaining insight and capacity-building and NASA gaining an economically viable alternative to produce and operate satellites with its Aquarius technology,” he said.
Hisas explained that the two satellites are now out of commission, but SAC-C is still in orbit collecting data. “SAC-C has been in orbit for 11 years and is still providing data. Its expected life span was five years so its longevity has made it a total success. We are squeezing the last drops out of it now, so to speak.”
The latest SAC-D satellite — like the first SAC-C launched in 2000 — was built by the state run Rio Negro based technology company INVAP. Like its predecessor, the satellite’s primary instrument, Aquarius, was built and operated by NASA.
SAC-C was focused on collecting data related to the Earth’s surface. SAC-D is more geared toward oceanic properties, though it has special instruments suitable for land studies as well.
SAC-D is designed to provide monthly global measurements of sea water salinity variation at the ocean´s surface, which will lead to better understanding of water cycles and their effect on global warming. It will also be able to identify hot spots on the Earth’s surface to create fire risk mapping, as well as measure soil moisture for early warnings of flooding and other natural disasters.
“This is the first time in history that we can produce an image of salinity levels around the world,” Hisas said. “Before, we had to rely on piecemeal measures taken by boats. This is a huge value-add for the scientific community and furthers our understanding of water density and movement, both important variables in climate change.”
The recently launched satellite has produced its first map of global ocean salinity since becoming operational Aug. 25. The map, which can be seen on NASA’s website, is a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data.
“What today is largely a scientific or environmental issue could become a global security threat if we don’t take measures today to slow climate change,” Hisas responded when asked about the strategic nature of this cooperative endeavor.
Argentina has advanced in aerospace research and development over the past decade, thanks in large part to its cooperation with the United States. The Kirchner governments, in particular, have promoted the expansion of the strategic sector.
“Few presidents have shown so much interest in science as President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, as quoted by Argentine news agency Telam. “For men of science to come across government leaders with such determination to apply science for the wellbeing of their people is always a source of inspiration.”
In 2005, the late Argentine President Nestor Kirchner signed a decree declaring space technology advancement a state policy and a national priority. Subsequently, Argentina’s National Space Plan 2004-15 earmarked about $240 million for investments in science and technology, with the idea of working toward the development of a South American Space Agency along with Brazil.
Like Argentina, Brazil has yet to launch its own satellites. It has suffered a number of setbacks, with its third failed launch attempt in August 2003 producing a massive explosion and killing 21 people, including many distinguished space scientists.
“The United States is to Argentina’s space program what China is to Brazil’s,” said CONAE’s Hisas. “Brazil has already launched three of its satellites from China and has another two pending.”
The U.S. collaboration with Argentina does not exclude third parties. Brazil participated in both the SAC-C and SAC-D preparations by providing facilities for environmental testing before launch. France and Italy also contributed instruments to both projects, turning them into multilateral endeavors.
Argentina’s space cooperation with the United States has led to the development of its own satellite and radar production capabilities. INVAP now manufactures its own earth-observation satellites — SAOCOM 1A and 1B — which will be equipped to survey Argentine farmland. CONAE is leading the effort, and has contracted the private U.S. company SpaceX to launch the first satellite in 2014.
INVAP’s experience with CONAE has prepared it to develop its own surveillance radars, one of which is the country’s first 3D radar. It was commissioned by the national government to support its Escudo Norte [North Shield] operation, which is focused on controlling aircraft entering and leaving Argentina’s northern frontiers with Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia — where drug trafficking is on the rise.
Hisas said these spinoff projects will help generate even more satellite business for Argentina, noting that “there is always more security for a nation when it controls the production of such technologies, rather than operating foreign equipment by following an instruction manual.”
This partnership between Argentina and the United States of America is very interesting with respect to the technological development of 3D radars, and it could and should bring benefits of scale.