Santa Maria island is candidate for landing of Space Rider, ESA's unmanned reusable orbital rover

Portugal promotes a space base in the Azores while the Spanish Space Agency is still without a director

El presidente ejecutivo de la Agencia Espacial Portuguesa desde octubre de 2021, Ricardo Conde, suscribe un acuerdo de colaboración con el general del Ejército portugués, Sergio Augusto Valente - PHOTO/Portugal Space
The executive president of the Portuguese Space Agency from October 2021, Ricardo Conde, signs a partnership agreement with the general of the Portuguese Army, Sergio Augusto Valente - PHOTO/Portugal Space

The Spanish Space Agency will soon be 12 months since its creation and three months without the executive director who must bring the enormous potential envisaged in its statutes up to cruising speed. 

  1. The burden falls on ANACOM and Portugal Space
  2. Azores, landing site of the European Space Rider mini-shuttle

Meanwhile, Portugal celebrates today, 18 March, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the document creating its national space organisation. To mark the occasion, Lisbon is giving the green light to a legal instrument that aims to position Portugal among the states offering new services for access to space, a sector of great strategic interest to the European Union. 

Before the Portuguese general elections on 10 March, in one of the last decisions of the incumbent government of the resigned Prime Minister Antonio Costa, the Council of Ministers over which he presides made an agreement of great importance: to stimulate opportunities for national and third-country institutions and companies to set up space launch centres anywhere in Portugal. 

El Decreto-Ley que actualiza y mejora la Ley Espacial de hace cinco años crea las condiciones para asentar en Portugal nuevos operadores de servicios espaciales de lanzamiento - PHOTO/Orbex 
The Decree-Law updating and improving the Space Law of five years ago creates the conditions to establish new operators of space launch services in Portugal - PHOTO/Orbex 

Convinced by his Minister of Science and Technology, Elvira Fortunato, and the head of the Defence portfolio, Helena Carreiras, Costa's acting Executive has introduced a set of amendments to its Space Law of January 2019, which now establishes and regulates the licensing rules for setting up, operating and exploiting space launch centres in Portuguese territory. 

A Decree-Law published in the Diario de la República - equivalent to the Spanish BOE - on 2 February clarifies the procedures and clears the administrative path for promoting space activities, setting up micro-launcher launch sites and putting small satellites into orbit. This will be possible from anywhere in Portugal, with priority being given to the island of Santa Maria in the Azores archipelago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

La ministra en funciones de Ciencia y Tecnología de Portugal, Elvira Fortunato, con su homóloga española, Diana Morant, en junio de 2022, con el entonces presidente de Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara - PHOTO/MICIU
Portugal's acting Minister of Science and Technology, Elvira Fortunato, with her Spanish counterpart, Diana Morant, in June 2022, with the then President of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara - PHOTO/MICIU

The burden falls on ANACOM and Portugal Space

The organisation that assumes the central role in licensing is the National Communications Authority (ANACOM). It does so after a regulatory process involving the Portuguese Space Agency - which calls itself Portugal Space - and involving the prior approval of the Lisbon government, which guarantees sustainability, security and the safeguarding of national strategic interests. 

According to the executive president of Portugal Space since October 2021, Ricardo Conde, the updating and improvement of the law approved five years ago "creates attractive conditions" to establish new operators of space access services in the country and "make Portugal a space nation". 

Ricardo Conde stresses that the aim of the new regulatory system is to create the conditions for "purely commercial" space activities to be carried out from Portuguese territory, which can compete in the international market. The revision of the Law sets out the conditions for the necessary procedures to implement space access and return to Earth capabilities. 

Un total de 14 consorcios de la UE, Estados Unidos y Rusia se presentaron a la primera llamada de Portugal Space para levantar un centro de lanzamiento en la isla de Manta María, que fue cancelado - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-Arianespace-P. Baudon
A total of 14 consortia from the EU, US and Russia bid for Portugal Space's first call to build a launch site on the island of Manta Maria, which was cancelled - PHOTO/ESA-CNES-Arianespace-P. Baudon

The Decree-Law establishes that the Portuguese Space Agency must work in close cooperation with state and regional entities in the licensing process in any geographical location, "including maritime areas adjacent to the Azores or Madeira archipelagos". In the case of both overseas areas, it requires a prior hearing and a binding opinion of the respective regional self-government. 

ESA is also considering Portugal Space's proposal to use the island as a landing or splashdown site for the European unmanned mini shuttle Space Rider, whose maiden flight is scheduled for the third quarter of 2025. The agency will decide by mid-2024 on the landing site for the first flights of Space Rider, which is now undergoing testing and validation by its two prime contractors, the Italian-French company Thales Alenia Space and the Italian company Avio.

El entonces ministro de Ciencia y Tecnología de Portugal, Manuel Heitor, segundo por la izquierda, en la ceremonia oficial de firma de en Azores de la creación de Portugal Space, el 18 de marzo de 2019 - PHOTO/Portugal Space
Portugal's then Minister of Science and Technology Manuel Heitor, second from left, at the official signing ceremony in the Azores for the creation of Portugal Space on 18 March 2019 - PHOTO/Portugal Space

Azores, landing site of the European Space Rider mini-shuttle

An ESA delegation led by the Director of Flight Programmes, the Italian Stefano Bianchi, visited the island in February to see the possibilities offered by Santa Maria for the descent of Europe's first reusable space vehicle. ESA has space mission tracking antennas on the island.  

Santa Maria requires infrastructure improvements to allow Space Rider's descent, but the president of Portugal Space, Ricardo Conde, has assured that he will take "all necessary measures" to ensure that the island is ready to receive Space Rider's first flight.

Secuencia de una misión del futuro sistema de transporte espacial Space Rider. Despegará desde Guayana y la isla de Santa María, en mitad del Atlántico, es uno de los lugares candidatos para su aterrizaje o amerizaje - PHOTO/ESA
Mission sequence of the future Space Rider space transportation system. It will take off from Guyana and the island of Santa Maria, in the mid-Atlantic, is one of the candidate landing sites - PHOTO/ESA

Eight metres long, weighing five tonnes at take-off and carrying 600 kilos of experimental payload, the Space Rider's raison d'être is to provide a commercial transport system to and from space. Once launched from French Guiana by an Italian Vega launcher, it is expected to remain in orbit for about two months, allowing customers to conduct experiments and technology tests. 

As an effective member state of the European Space Agency (ESA) since November 2000, Portugal is counting on its technical assistance to set up the infrastructure for a space base on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. With the Space Act 2019, Portugal Space launched an international call to which 14 consortia from the European Union, the United States and Russia responded. But administrative reasons forced the project to be put on hold.

El mini transbordador espacial europeo Space Rider se encuentra en fase de pruebas y validación. En imagen, el demostrador IXV, que efectuó su primer vuelo en 2015 y fue rescatado en el mar - PHOTO/ESA
The European Space Rider mini space shuttle is currently undergoing testing and validation. Pictured is the IXV demonstrator, which made its first flight in 2015 and was rescued at sea - PHOTO/ESA

Fortunately, Portugal's new Space Decree-Law is the legal framework that already envisages regulating the activities, operations and exploitation of space launch centres in our neighbouring nation. It is ahead of Spain, which does not have a Space Law, still has its Space Agency in its infancy and has been without a director general since the end of December, a task that has since been carried out on an interim basis by Air Force General Juan Carlos Sánchez Delgado while awaiting the appointment of the new executive head no later than one month from now.