Mexico is a country I love. Visiting it often, I’m always fascinated by its history, food, culture, and people. According to pre-hispanic indigenous mythologies in Mexico and Central America, the jaguar was a divine being revered and feared for centuries. So it is no surprise that some of the most innovative efforts in the Mexican space sector are named after its rich past, combining its roots with its future.
Dereum Labs is the only space startup in Latin America exclusively focused on space robotics. Their nearest target is a Lunar exploration mission scheduled for 2022. Seeking to offer an accessible entry point to space exploration, the first generation of space robots, Jaguar-1, is designed with the dimensions and standard for a 2U CubeSat and integrated chip set, which is rare for space robots worldwide. In addition, Dereum Labs uses standard electronic components to decrease overhead mission costs, allowing the team to focus on the mechanical engineering, design, and programming needs of their semi-autonomous modular robots.
Prototype of Jaguar-1 (Credit: Dereum Labs)
Carlos Mariscal, CEO of Dereum Labs, an engineer by training, is keen on making space robotics more affordable and interoperable using the CubeSat standard, which can integrate any module from any manufacturer. They’re at technology readiness level 5, having passed the clinical design reviews of the prototyping, simulations, and basic tests. Now, they are beginning to manufacture the hardware for space environment tests. Dereum Labs has an agreement with one of the largest public research universities in Mexico and Latin America, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), to certify its components for space flight.
“Interoperability between different providers is a key issue to consider,” said Mariscal. “Everyone is competing, which is healthy for a vibrant industry. But doing so with distinctive technologies and ideas at the expense of making them compatible will create more operational challenges. So we made a conscious business decision to use the CubeSat standard, which gives us interoperability, and we can integrate any module from any manufacturer. We can integrate it into the robots because it is already standardized and it is one of the keys to achieve sustainability in space exploration. We plan to design our robots as fully autonomous in the future.”
Dereum Labs focuses on developing the Lunar economy by tapping the private sector in Mexico not traditionally related to the space industry. Mariscal mentioned the challenge of convincing others about the importance of investing in it now.
“When we say space in Mexico, it is something that people see very far away and it has cost us a lot of work to make people aware that the space era is already here. In fact, we know that we’re going to have people living on the Moon and in off-Earth colonies in some decades. So we’re counting on the reality that industries and services will be needed in space in the coming decades. Our innovative business model foregoes the need to become experts in everything and instead forecasts equipping mature industries on Earth, such as mining and construction, with what they need to expand their operations off Earth. Unlike other robotics providers worldwide that focus on scientific payloads for space agencies, we target from the outset companies currently not involved in the space industry.”
Dereum Labs has the endorsement of the Mexican Space Agency (AEM) and they recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbus Defence and Space. The Jaguar-1 mission will primarily gather basic data for companies. The company also sells billboard space in the lander’s exterior starting at USD$ 1 million to help the first companies establish their brand in the nascent Lunar future.
“There are many professionals in Mexico who I know are dedicating themselves to the space industry or who are curious about it, especially the younger generations. However, there’s isn’t a developed sector, so I believe that the main challenge for countries like Mexico and across Latin America is the idiosyncrasy of investors, clients, stakeholders, because we have noticed a great deal of interest in our business but with the expectations for a return on investment in three to four years. The space sector doesn’t work like that. Missions require a longer-term time frame.”
Mariscal is joined by an interdisciplinary team of professionals, including a Chief Designer, a C-level role still rare in the space industry. Mariscal wished to be an astronaut in his youth, but he put aside his aspirations due to a lack of access to information and opportunities.
“I was always interested in space, but it seemed completely inaccessible in Mexico. I didn’t know I could dedicate myself to space.”
A 2013 NASA robotics competition advertised at his university campus was the spark that lit up his childhood dreams with a renewed sense of urgency.
Fermin Romero is a veteran of international diplomacy and international politics, registering almost three decades in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE). Inspired early in his childhood by science communicators such as Carl Sagan, he’s always liked science and technology. He enjoyed studying space law as he pursued his university studies in international relations.
Romero’s been involved in the various institutional endeavors in Mexico dating as far back as the 1990s, spearheading the space industry. One of them is a Regional Center for Space Science and Technology Education for Latin America and the Caribbean affiliated with the United Nations (CRECTEALC). Their management and leadership reside primarily in Mexico, with a satellite campus in Brazil. The CRECTEALC is supported by Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Council of Science and Technology in Science and Technology (Conacyt), and the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics (INAOE). CRECTEALC has supported Mexican and Latin American students to pursue specialized studies in remote sensing and satellites, among other areas of focus in the space industry.
Romero has been part of numerous international summits, including the Space Conference of the Americas (CEA), held every couple of years since 1990, and many other space-focused conferences affiliated with the United Nations. He also collaborated with Mexican legislators and policymakers to create the Mexican Space Agency (AEM) in 2010.
“I have recently participated in the creation of a Latin American Space Cluster, a consortium founded by companies in Ecuador, Argentina and Mexico to promote space development in the region from the private and social sectors. However, the biggest challenge,” explained Romero, “has been the lack of space diplomacy and technical dissemination that limited cooperation for decades. So, despite the institutional foundations to support new generations to enter the workforce, the lack of visibility and awareness across all levels, coupled with limited budgets, kept many potential students and researchers uninformed about the opportunities. However, I believe with this new orientation coming from the higher levels, the space industry will become more critical in the national and regional agenda because space is not exclusive to developed countries or companies.”
According to Romero, the Mexican Federation of the Aerospace Industry (Federación Mexicana de la Industria Aeroespacial or FEMIA) is reaching out to entrepreneurs interested in Earth Observation projects. Most recently, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mexican Space Agency called for a regional cooperation plan for space in 2020’s virtual gathering of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an intergovernmental mechanism for dialogue and political agreement. As a result, an agreement has been signed to create the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE).
“And although we have seen so far collaboration in small, localized space missions, the new missions are going to take on a slightly more medium-sized dimension collaborating with more countries. This high level of visibility gives us a new vision for the future where the manufacturing of space components, satellites, and missions can occur locally in Mexico and regionally. In my experience, most governments in the region are interested in the benefits offered by space science and technology. However, cooperation often lacks the political will and has not yielded the expected results to overcome the technological dependencies on space issues with other spacefaring nations. So, as long as the region cannot make joint decisions that positively impact regional economic development, the space development plans will migrate from the public to the private sphere.”
The global space industry is booming with a spike in private-public partnerships and venture capital to inspire young entrepreneurs and startups such as Dereum Labs to innovate. However, it is yet to be seen if all of these institutional initiatives in Mexico coalesce into the support network needed for advanced research and development, rapid prototyping, iteration, and a more extended time frame. Nevertheless, one lesson is clear—space science communications must raise the space agenda’s profile in Latin America because the risk of not supporting the new generations of researchers and entrepreneurs will be a missed opportunity to expand beyond Earth’s economy.
“Mining site” (May 2021) featured in the header is by the Mexican artist Sarahí Covarrubias who is originally from the city of Chihuahua. Since 2017, she has exhibited her artwork. Covarrubias is preparing for her first solo exhibit to obtain her university degree in fine arts.
About this piece, Covarrubias explained,
“I use the structural elements of underground mines because I see architectural and industrial structures as something that can be exported or built in space. We seek the exploration and possibly conquest of other planets and right now we exploit one. I imagine a mine on the moon or our civilization adapting to the configuration of space stations.”
A longtime fan of science fiction, cyberpunk aesthetic, and brutalist architecture, Covarrubias shared her perspectives about the space industry in the region.
“Currently, Mexico and Latin America are developing satellites for telecommunications. It would be a great step if countries cooperated more to develop space and research centers. The Mexican Space Agency (AEM), for example, recently made an alliance with the University of Arizona to develop satellites focused on telecommunications. However, many professionals in the region continue to migrate to other countries because they lack the opportunity to practice their profession. And the reality is that many countries are currently experiencing pressing social problems that ultimately hinder progress in research and technological development despite the various efforts to address them. ”
Speaking about her role as an artist,
“Art and science go hand in hand in an infinity of specialties that involve the conceptualization, development of new technologies, and knowledge in search of understanding reality. I like to think about the literary work of Isaac Asimov that forecasted the technology we use today, as well as the creative foreight in films, like in the movie Interstellar with the visualizations of the black hole Gargantua. I have recently seen how Hashem Al-Ghaili has put together a simulation and the data obtained by the Chandra X-ray Observatory of a black hole in the center of the Perseus galaxy. This interconnection between art and science is extremely interesting to me.”
Editorial disclosure: I don't have any vested financial interests in the companies or projects discussed in this article at the time of publication (May 2022). I don't entertain affiliate marketing offers or paid endorsements that would influence my research.
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