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Latin America looks to space, despite limitations on the ground

Missions to Mars, the astronauts coming and going to the International Space Station, China’s increasingly ambitious space program. Space-related news is circulating, and not just from the richest and largest nations in the world. Take Latin America.

On February 17, congress in Nicaragua, one of the poorest and most conflict-prone countries in the region, approved a law creating a space agency. Costa Rica, known for its relative growth and stability, followed suit on February 18, the day NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars to search for signs of ancient life.

The potential benefits of space are tantalizing for many countries with limited resources. Satellite technology, international partnerships, national pride and local development await us. Inevitably, critics suspect a mess, a vanity project, a diversion from the pressing issues on the ground.

“The truth is, the type of eyebrow raised about announcing a space program in Nicaragua is similar every time an African country announces a space program. People always wonder why that makes sense, d ‘especially since these countries are grappling with several socio-economic problems, “Temidayo Oniosun, managing director of Space in Africa, wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

“First of all, most developing countries are primarily interested” in space technologies to meet development challenges, said Oniosun. Some people want a communications satellite “because it provides a great return on investment and helps reduce the challenges of the digital divide. That is why you rarely see a developing country saying that it is doing space exploration (Moon, Mars, etc.) and everything, ”he said.

The growth of the commercial space industry and the prospect of global Internet access from satellite constellations could increasingly help countries that lack coverage. Satellite data can also guide the cultivation of crops, assist industry and natural disaster management, and track weather and other disease-related conditions.

Nicaragua, whose government has severely suppressed political opposition, is not a newcomer to space ambitions. An old agreement reached years ago with China for the deployment of a communications satellite is being delayed. In 2017, Russia opened a facility in Nicaragua as part of a satellite navigation system; Nicaragua denied that it was to spy on the region or the United States.

Nicaragua seems aware of skepticism about its new “National Secretariat for the Affairs of Outer Space, the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, managed by the military”.

“This is not how they wanted to manipulate it,” pro-government lawmaker Jenny Martínez told Congress, without giving more details on the critics’ comments. She said more than 50 countries have dedicated space agencies. Nicaragua has been a member since 1994 of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which oversees treaties governing space law.

“I don’t think Nicaragua needs to send anything to space to be part of the forum,” said Carlos Arturo Vélez, an Ecuadorian lawyer studying at the University’s International Institute of Air and Space Law. from Leiden in the Netherlands.

“Doing something wrong in space could affect any country in the world,” for example if satellite debris crashes into Earth and causes damage and casualties, Vélez said.

Ecuador launched a satellite, Pegaso, in 2013 with Chinese fanfare and aid, but it was damaged a month later. Some accounts indicated that the cause was debris from an old Russian rocket.

Supporters of Costa Rica’s space ambitions say its new agency can contribute technologies used on Earth and give Costa Rica a say in international space policy and agreements.

“Many people criticized the creation of NASA in 1958 as the United States battled the worst post-war economic recession,” Franklin Chang Díaz, Costa Rican-born American citizen turned NASA astronaut, said in a press release.

The incredible feat of putting a person on the moon, he said, “sometimes overshadows the most important thing” in the creation of NASA: the enormous technological and economic benefits that followed. Chang Díaz is the President and CEO of Texas-based Ad Astra Rocket.

Last week, California-based LeoLabs announced that a new radar site was operational in Costa Rica to track objects in low Earth orbit and provide data. The country’s first satellite, Irazú, was launched with the help of a SpaceX rocket in 2018 to monitor its rainforests and climate change. It was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

“It is not surprising” that Costa Rica has passed a law on space agencies and I hope Guatemala will do the same, said Katherinne Herrera, biochemistry and microbiology student at the University of the Valley of Guatemala who runs a university club dedicated to space science and engineering.

A country needs “public policies that support space initiatives” and “help achieve different research goals,” Herrera wrote in an email.

Guatemala’s first satellite, Quetzal-1, was deployed by Japan last year and has been operated by a team from the university where Herrera studies. The project took place in a country whose problems forced many citizens to seek a better life elsewhere.

The Bolivian space agency has been caught up in the country’s recent political unrest. The new government accused its acting predecessor of hampering the operations of the agency, which was established in 2010 by then-president Evo Morales.

Brazil’s Minister of Science and Technology Marcos Pontes is a former astronaut who trained with NASA, and Chile is home to giant telescopes. Today, Mexico and Argentina are leading efforts to form a regional space agency. The African Union is also planning a space agency, which will be based in Egypt. The European Space Agency, which uses a rocket launch site in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America, was established in 1975.

The Mexican Congress on Monday hosted an international panel on the prospects for a “new space race” and what it can do for health, education and other areas. Senator Beatriz Paredes Rangel put it in existential terms, saying it was time to stop dwelling on past debates related to Earth.

“The future is in our hands and if we are not part of it, we will disappear or lose the opportunity to play a relevant role in building the future,” she said.

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