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Towards the Colombian conquest of space

(Dec 2008) In the coming days, the Colombian government will make a very important decision for the country: how and when to launch the first national satellite. There are multiple options on the table – and contradictory positions

For more than 20 years, one of the dreams of Colombian governments and presidents alike has been to have the country’s own satellite in space, which would allow Colombia autonomy and freedom in the management of its telecommunications.

It now appears that before the end of this year, the government will make a decision in the cabinet to launch not one but two satellites before 2010. The problem is that there are already divisions among those in the Uribe administration.

For several months, the Ministry of Communications together with the Colombian Commission on Space presided by Vice President Francisco Santos, has led a process to launch a powerful telecommunications satellite that would guarantee sufficient capacity to make up for the growing needs in the next 15-20 years.

To finalize this project, the ministry has set aside 100 billion pesos (over 43 million USD) next year and has announced that it will designate another 350 billion (150 million USD) between 2010 and 2012, coming from the telecommunications fund, with the goal of financing 280 million dollars that this single mega satellite will cost.

But this is not the only initiative. The ministry has been accompanying the Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi, which also has a project to launch a satellite for observation of Earth, which could cost 100-150 million dollars.

On the other hand a consortium of companies from five countries made a proposal to the Office of the Vice President, Ministries of Defense and of Communications, the Agustín Codazzi and to the National Planning Department to launch a veritable constellation of up to seven satellites, costing between 250 and 300 million dollars.

This constellation will have a geostationary satellite, like the one sought by the Ministry of Communications, but with a smaller but scalable capacity. Buying one of those large satellites “would be as if a family going on an excursion purchased a TransMilenio (the public transportation system in Bogotá) bus with the idea that along the way passengers would be picked up to fill up the bus and thus pay for all of the expenses,” says an expert consulted by SEMANA.

In addition to the communications satellite that costs 150 million dollars, it would be possible to have one for Earth’s observation, capable of taking photos with a one meter resolution, like what the Agustín Codazzi wants. This satellite would have a synthetic aperture radar with multiple military and civilian uses, which would allow for the generation of a whole new industry in Colombia and would put the country at the forefront in Latin America. All this would supposedly cost the same as the mega-satellite.

The Vice Minister of Communications Daniel Medina told SEMANA that he is thinking of a satellite with 32 transponders (a system for which signals are received and retransmitted) because the demand for broad band is going to be very high. According to the connectivity plan, in the coming years more than 30,000 schools have to be equipped with broad band, of which half will have to be via satellite.

The problem is that the same ministry was wrong ten years ago when it designed the Compartel program, which contracted 10,000 fixed telephony points and a few broad band points via satellite in rural and marginalized areas of the country. What nobody predicted was the overwhelming advance in cellular telephones that arrived to many of those areas which put the program in crisis. Fortunately this program is on the verge of being reoriented.

That is why several experts consulted by SEMANA believe that it is better to launch a satellite with less capacity and a lower pricetag, in order to minimize risks and to use the remaining funds to add on new satellites.

Some military officials believe that instead of having an observation satellite it would be better to have a SAR, synthetic aperture radar satellite, which would be able to penetrate the permanently clouded areas of the country in order to observe both day and night everything from volcanic activity, to snow-capped mountains and rivers, to coffee or coca crops and even to armed groups in jungles and mountains.

At the same time, spokespersons from the consortium tell SEMANA that they could acquire about four low-orbit communications satellites, known as LEO. Located about 800 kilometers from the earth, each one of those satellites would pass by the country every 45 minutes, which would allow them to make a follow-up almost in real time for civilian and military installations that require it, for maritime vessels and land vehicles, and for the troops who today are in the jungle and can last weeks without their whereabouts being known.

Precisely what the government has in its hands is the possibility of giving a technological leap which would replace mules with satellites, but that requires policy definitions of what the country wants and needs, and not what each of its ministries and their entities desire.

A constellation not only will give greater capacity to the armed forces but will also create a new civilian knowledge-based industry in the country. More importantly, it will give Colombia independence to measure and look at what it is interested in, and not, as is the case today, what interests the owners of the satellites that it uses.

The Ministry of Communications said that for now the government is studying the matter and coordinating between the different ministries and entities in order to bring the issue to the cabinet before year’s end. “No decisions have been made and we are open to exploring all the possibilities,” said Medina.

It is time that Colombia takes on this technological leap, but it should do so in a sound footing in order to not embark the country on a wrong path into space.