Brazil’s Rockets and Missiles Update – 2000

Brazil established a commission to develop a national space program in the early 1960s, and since then has developed four sounding rockets and a satellite launch vehicle, the VLS. Although the only two test flights of the VLS have failed, Brazil continues to advance in rocket technology. A successful VLS could be converted into a ballistic missile with intercontinental range. Brazil’s short-range ballistic missile program, active during the 1980s, has been closed down, and Brazil became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995.

Sonda program

Brazil’s began its space effort with the development of the Sonda-1 sounding rocket at the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA). Three other Sonda rockets followed and the last, the Sonda-4, was primarily conceived to develop and test technologies that could be used for Brazil’s satellite launch vehicle, the VLS (Veiculo Lancador de Satelites).

VLS program

The VLS is a four-stage rocket comprised of a core and four strap-on motors. The first, or booster stage, has four solid fuel motors strapped to the center second-stage core motor. Much of the rocket motor technology used on the VLS is derived from the Sonda-3 and Sonda-4 sounding rockets. The VLS is designed to deploy 100 to 380 kilogram satellites into 200 to 1200 kilometer equatorial circular orbits, or to deploy 75 to 275 kilogram payloads into 200 to 1000 kilometer polar circular orbits. Configured as a missile, the VLS could fly 3,600 kilometers with a 500 kilogram nuclear payload.

The first launch of the VLS ended in failure on November 20, 1997, when it was destroyed 65 seconds into the flight. According to reports, the rocket was off course and tilting to one side because one of the four solid rocket propellant strap-on motors failed to ignite. In December 1999, a second VLS had to be destroyed just three minutes into the flight when the rocket again veered off course.

During the 1980s, two Brazilian firms, Orbita and Avibras, tried to develop ballistic missiles, but both programs were shut down because of funding problems. Development of the VLS was also slowed by the export controls implemented through the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The United States blocked Brazilian requests for telemetry and inertial guidance equipment as well as stage separation, fuel component and atmospheric reentry technologies.

Before joining the MTCR, Brazil created the civilian-run Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) in February 1994 to coordinate and plan all satellite and space launch programs, and in August 1995, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso announced that “Brazil no longer possesses, nor does it produce or intend to produce, to import or to export long-range military missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.” Brazil became an official member of the MTCR in October 1995. As a member, Brazil was permitted to retain its space launch program, and agreed to terminate its ballistic missile projects and to pass legislation that would tighten export control laws for dual-use items.

Foreign assistance

Brazil’s rocket programs have always depended on foreign assistance. The press has reported, for example, the sale of Russian carbon fiber technology for use in rocket motor cases, test benches for liquid fueled rocket motors developed with the assistance of Russian scientists, and instruction by Russian scientists in the use of liquid propellants.

For more information, see “Brazil: First Flight of VLS Space Launcher Fails,” and “Brazil’s Rockets,” in Volume 4, Issue 1 (January-February 1998) of the Risk Report, “Brazil: General Confirms Import of Russian Missile Materials,” in Volume 2, Issue 4 (July-August 1996) of the Risk Report, and “Brazil: Trying to Give Up Missiles,” in Volume 1, Issue 3 (April 1995) of the Risk Report.