A Nova Scotia spaceport has secured funding and selected construction teams, aiming to send its first mission into space by 2022.
On May 12, Maritime Launch Services announced it had closed financing for $10.5 million from PowerOne Capital Markets Limited — a Toronto investment bank — and Primary Capital Inc. The money is set to go towards construction and the first launch at the facility near Canso, a community in eastern Nova Scotia.
In an announcement on May 26, the company said it has selected Stantec — a global firm with offices in Nova Scotia — to lead the spaceport facility team. Nova Construction, based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, will serve as a partner on road building and civil construction. Other Nova Scotia entities will participate in an air monitoring program and air quality modelling for the spaceport.
“With initial financing in hand, we have begun hiring members of our executive leadership team and we are accelerating work so we can break ground on construction of the complex in the fall,” stated Maritime Launch Services president and CEO Stephen Matier in a press release.
The spaceport will face stiff competition from more established launch ports all along the east coast of North America, pointed out space consultant Maxime Puteaux from the analyst company Euroconsult. And looking at the history of other newer spaceports in the region, it may be a while before Canada can hold its own in a competitive market, he said.
“It looks to be commercially driven, which means it doesn’t [yet] fit in with in the government’s national space program,” Puteaux said. Government investment is often key for big infrastructure projects to get off the ground in our large and population-dispersed country, but regulator Transport Canada has said the project is at too early a stage to comment publicly on its plans.
Puteaux further warned that a 2022 launch expectation could translate to later in the decade if there are any snags. “Everything takes time in the satellite industry,” he said. “Spaceport creation is maybe one of the most time-consuming activities, considering the stakes in this game.”
One thing working in Nova Scotia’s favour is the large number of new players in the rocket business. Tiny satellites like CubeSats and microsats allow small entities to hitch a “rideshare” rocket mission that can launch dozens of these machines at a time, lowering the cost. Yet the inherent cost and complication of launching means that the number of companies trying to build rockets today will likely diminish, Puteaux warned.
He also has been looking at the experiences of emerging spaceports in the business. Spaceport America – the home of anchor tenant Virgin Galactic – was in fact first proposed in the 1990s, but it took until 2003 to get shovels in the ground. The facility opened for business in 2011, but Virgin’s space plane has taken much longer to develop than anyone anticipated. The company doesn’t yet have a date for when ferrying operations will start in earnest.
Perhaps the best hope for self-funding comes from Rocket Lab, a company that has been regularly sending Electron rockets into orbit filled with small satellites. Absent a recent catastrophic launch failure May 15 that is still under investigation, the startup company does have a relatively high success rate overall at roughly 85 percent, Puteaux said.
Rocket Lab sends satellites into orbit from New Zealand and has plans to expand to the United States shortly, but all that effort took about 10 years, Puteaux said. “We have to praise Rocket Lab for building everything from scratch, and pushing everything, including international labour legislation,” he added, referring to a bilateral agreement allowing the United States company to operate in New Zealand.
Besides the legislative hurdles, building the spaceport on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island was a considerable challenge, Puteaux said. “If you read about [founder] Peter Beck, he has said in the press that the physics of piling concrete and calculating loads on the [launch] structure were some of the most underestimated problems that he faced.”
And these are just some of the new launch facilities from which Canada must seek differentiation. SpaceX launches its Starship test models at a small town in south Texas called Boca Chia, which may expand as Starship operations mature. Closer to Nova Scotia, a NASA facility on Wallops Island in Virginia was redeveloped and updated for orbital operations both from the agency and the Space Force, the United States’ Department of Defense space branch. There are also early plans to develop more facilities in Georgia and Brazil.
There are also the longstanding launch facilities that NASA uses — particularly the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for most space station and robotic launches, which is itself a growing commercial area that includes regular SpaceX launches; and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for polar launches, which attracts security-minded missions. Further south, the European Space Agency and Arianespace often operate commercial satellite launches out of French Guiana, just north of Brazil.
Puteaux advised potential users of the Canadian launch facility to focus on a few factors when seeking differentiation. It will be attractive to Canadian companies not wanting to cross borders, he said. The facility also juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, allowing for a convenient spot to launch towards the Equator. But the key factor will be how competitive the launching systems are, he added, and right now it’s too early to tell how well they’ll perform.
All in all, Maritime Launch Services said the funding will be a boon to its plans.
“We are thrilled with today’s announcement as it advances our initiative to disrupt the launch industry by giving our clients an affordable price per kilogram and just as importantly, the ability to deliver their payloads to space when they want them and where they want them,” Matier stated in the May 12 release. “Near the town of Canso, our launch site will provide a wide range of launch inclinations including optimal polar and sun-synchronous launch trajectories.”
This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.