Satellite Autonomy for Colombia
By Yolima Dussán/Diálogo December 13, 2017FACSAT-1, the first satellite of the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) Space Program, will be placed in orbit by March 30th, 2018. The project was presented during the first Aerospace Capacities Seminar, “Satellite Industry,” held in late September 2017, at Marco Fidel Suárez Air Force Academy (EMAVI, per its Spanish acronym) in Cali, Colombia.
“The Colombian Air Force’s bid for satellites is to develop and use its own space capacities to ensure technological autonomy, thereby reducing dependence on foreign technologies,” Lieutenant Colonel Giovanni Corredor Gutiérrez, FAC head of Space Affairs, told Diálogo. “The result is a narrowing of the socioeconomic divide between Colombia and other developed nations, and the optimization of available resources.”
EMAVI is meeting the challenge of developing the satellite. The air force academy not only serves as the base for the entire learning process but also as the headquarters to manage Colombia’s space program, which plans to set up a ground control station, a laboratory for satellite technology integration, and develop launchers. This effort translates to an economic gain equivalent to $582 million per year, or a 0.2 percent increase in GDP, according to FAC estimates.
“Science is my route, my goal is space”
“The large-scale space program kicked off five years ago with the FACSAT-1 project. These are long-term processes with several development stages,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel Fabián Andrés Salazar Ospina, head of EMAVI’s Research and Development Department, told Diálogo. “Owning satellites affords nations operational independence, privacy, and security, and ensures service continuity during national and international crises and disasters.”
Space programs are divided into three segments: ground, control, and space. “Five years ago [in 2012], FAC began taking steps to develop the ground segment [the launchers], but we faced limitations. So we focused on the space segment, developing nanosatellites,” Lt. Col. Salazar said. “We’re not interested in developing large, heavy, or costly satellites. We focus on nanosatellites, which are small, efficient, functional, and much more economical.”
Nanosatellites—also known as CubeSats—are smaller-size units with a five-year lifespan. They can be used for observation, communication, or both. Each unit measures 10 cubic centimeters and weighs about 1.5 kilograms, but has the electronics necessary to carry out observation, communication, and scientific experiments in orbit.
A Colombian asset
FACSAT-1 is a small satellite made up of three cubes, designed to detect and capture images of Earth. It has a lens resolution of 30 meters per pixel.
“We’re quite eager to launch this nanosatellite to provide daily coverage of Colombian territory. The images obtained, due to their accuracy, can be used for urban development, land restoration, illegal crop substitution, and natural disaster and fire response,” General Carlos Eduardo Bueno, FAC commander, told Diálogo. “With this satellite, we enter a new era in line with FAC’s transformation, in which technological development and evolution hold great importance.”
Until now, Colombia was a satellite services consumer (i.e., a client of nations and companies that provide them) and subject to meeting market conditions. With the development of FACSAT-1, Colombia hopes to become an international satellite provider.
“FACSAT-1 opens up a new era in the satellite industry. Not only will we be self-sufficient but we also expect to become providers,” Lt. Col. Salazar said. “The satellite will be a Colombia-controlled asset. It will supply us with a guaranteed stream of remote sensing data for a wide array of applications, including training, scientific and technological capacity development, academic research opportunities, financial savings, and international cooperation.”
“This first satellite is FAC’s bid to demonstrate that satellite technology, even though it requires advanced knowledge, is not out of reach for Colombian society,” Lt. Col. Corredor added. “Our nation has sufficient intellectual capital to develop capacities and borrow the knowledge to allow us to make better use of this technology.”
FACSAT-2, the second phase
FAC focuses its efforts on the long-term development of satellites due to their widespread growth and necessary use in military and civilian operations, including to produce precise maps, monitor soil and subsoil use, study climate change, make weather forecasts, and control air traffic, ground transportation, and maritime and river navigation. The Space Program moves ahead with a project timeline that foresees the launch of FACSAT-2, the second domestically produced nanosatellite, in 2019.
FACSAT-2 will be twice as large as its predecessor. It will have observation and communication capacities and produce more precise images. The resolution of the camera is planned for 5 meters per pixel, allowing it to be used for more specialized applications such as cartography and topography. FAC is working on the second prototype’s launcher to close the supply chain and achieve greater self-sufficiency. The third stage, FACSAT-3, will involve developing a constellation of 18 to 20 communication and imaging satellites with coordinated ground coverage.
“We’re very committed and excited about this program. We know that this dedicated national satellite capacity, as part of a sustainable investment in science and technology, holds enormous potential to create many socioeconomic benefits for Colombia,” Lt. Col. Salazar said. “It will open new opportunities for cooperation with other nations that have a space presence,” he concluded.