China launched a communication satellite for Venezuela in 2008. The next phase in Hugo Chavez’s drive for Bolivarian excellence will entail the Venezuelans launchingtheir own satellite (with Chinese assistance) in 2012 – a feat with dual implications.
One is related to the nature of the payload. According to a Venezuelan official this week, the satellite will have a surveillance mission:
Ricardo Menendez said Thursday that the earth-observation satellite, to be built at a cost of $140 million, would be used to monitor troop movements and illegal mining as well as study climate change and the environment.
In other words, it will carry an imaging sensor or sensors, taskable by the Venezuelan authorities. Although satellite imagery has been available commercially for some time, it makes a significant difference to timeliness (and other aspects of coverage) to be able to downlink the signal directly, without a middleman, and define and task the image parameters yourself. Depending on the orbital path, Venezuela may have regular “looks” at areas of interest to Hugo Chavez’s buddies abroad. Presumably, the orbit will be optimized for Central America, which will limit how much it can be optimized for coverage of El Norte. In any case, it will be optimized for military applications.
The other implication involves rocket technology. Launching satellites into earth orbit is a significant step in developing the capability to build long-range missiles. Chavez is already building a joint missile base with Iran in northwestern Venezuela, a project that includes collaborating on the development of a new missile series. The technological boost from Chinese rocketry will go together with joint missile development like a horse and carriage, accelerating Venezuela’s timeline to medium- and long-range missiles of her own.