Mexico’s Space Sector Ready for TakeoffBy Alicia Arizpe | Fri, 02/26/2021 - 09:09
Decades of research and hard work culminated in the launch of the first Mexican satellite in 1985. From that point on, the country’s space capabilities both in the public and private sector have only moved forward, with numerous groups studying and developing their own small satellites, rockets, launchers and other technologies. The accelerated growth of the aerospace industry can further support the development of a local space industry. Almost 36 years from the launch of the first Mexican satellite, where does the country’s space capabilities stand and where is the country going?
Mexico’s interest in space exploration dates back to the 1950s, in line with the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite. In 1962, a presidential decree led to the creation of a National Commission of Outer Space (CONEE), a federal agency that would promote the research and exploitation of space resources. Some of the commission’s achievements include the development and launch of several probe rockets that culminated in the creation of the Milt 2, which was launched in 1975 and reached a 120km altitude. The commission was disbanded in 1977, leaving the country with many projects but no federal organization representing the sector until the creation of the Mexican Space Agency (AEM) in 2010.
Down to Earth Benefits
While some may perceive the sector as non-essential, a strong space industry brings a broad range of benefits to the general population. Space technologies have numerous applications in telecommunications, agriculture, national security and healthcare. Satellites have also been used to track diverse environmental phenomena, including weather, storms and cyclones to warn the general public. They can also monitor soil moisture, vegetation and human settlements.
For example, a recent project led by researchers from Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEMEX) and AEM aims to use satellites to support agriculture practices by estimating crop yield, providing early warnings of potential crop failure and helping farmers improve their agricultural practices through close monitoring of their fields. Through precision agriculture, farmers can use temporal and spatial information to manage their fields and improve productivity and profitability.
The applications of satellite technology can support sectors that some might have thought entirely unrelated, such as tourism. A project led by researchers from the University of Nottingham will use satellites to monitor the growth of sargassum, a brown macroalgae known for its bad odor, in the Mexican Caribbean. The uncontrolled growth of sargassum has costed millions of dollars in cleanup costs to hotel owners at beaches in popular tourism destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Space Technology Made in Mexico
While not too long ago Mexico relied on satellite and rocket technology developed abroad, the country has made significant advances in the development of satellites and other space technologies. Late in 2019, the first fully Mexican-made nanosatellite AztechSat-1 took a three-day journey aboard the SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) from where it was successfully placed in orbit in February 2020. AztechSat-1 was developed by students from Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla to test information transmission technologies. AztechSat-1 is a small low-earth-orbit satellite often called CubeSat. Similar satellites have been used to test space technologies, commercial applications, Earth observation, radio and research projects by countries across the globe. AztechSat-1’s success has inspired the development of further space projects, including the development and launch of nanosatellite AtlaCom-1 that is currently being developed in Atlacomulco, State of Mexico.
This was only one of the numerous projects developed by local universities in coordination with
AEM, which is intensifying its efforts to develop state-of-the-art technology in the country. The agency is also working with space agencies of many European, Asian and American countries and with local and foreign universities to train students, conduct research projects or develop technology. AEM is working with NASA in the development and launch of the next generation of AztechSat nanosatellites and has signed several strategic alliances with local universities, including one with Mexico’s largest academic institution, UNAM, to train highly specialized professionals.
The development of space technologies is not limited to academia. Private companies are also dabbling into the sector thanks in part to the growth of the local aerospace industry. “There are significant opportunities for the space sector as it gains strength,” said Luis Lizcano, Executive President of FEMIA, to MBN. “We are working with AEM on a few missions because we want to develop Mexico’s space capabilities, which remain limited.”
Local companies planning to delve into space technology include Monterrey startup SpaceLab. Although the company is currently focusing in the development of drones, it plans to build a team that develops rockets to launch nanosatellites. Developing this technology will allow the company to become the first fully Mexican company to produce motor rockets to deliver satellites into low orbits and reduce the country’s full reliance on operators from the US and Europe. “At this point, those in Mexico who want to launch a satellite need to approach NASA or ESA and pay a US$1 million fee. Once we develop our own rockets, we will be able to freely launch our own satellites at a fraction of the cost,” said Antonio Franco, CEO of SpaceLab, to MBN.
Puebla-based startup Space JLTC is also developing monitoring and security technology that can be used by the public and private sector. This company is also supporting Universidad de Atlacomulco’s plan to develop the AtlaCom-1 nanosatellite. Datiotec Aerospacial, part of San Luis Potosi Group Cuantum Labs, is another Mexican startup that is betting on the aerospace industry and has built a probe rocket to test micro gravity.
While companies interested in space technology seem enthusiastic, there are still numerous challenges ahead to grow a local industry. Chief among them is local regulation concerning rockets. “Developing rockets is highly expensive and Mexican regulation is lacking, concerning the development and launch of satellites,” said Franco. “However, we believe that through the soon-to-be-created Latin American Space Agency (ALCE), these regulations will change.”