Maritime Launch Services plans to build a launch site in Nova Scotia to host launches of the Ukrainian-built Cyclone-4M rocket, with launches set to begin in 2021. (credit: MLS)
Canada is, in most respects, a major player in space activities. It’s one of the partners on the International Space Station program and contributes key technologies to it and other projects, from robotics to synthetic aperture radar. It’s home to one of the world’s largest operators of communications satellites, Telesat, as well as startups developing small satellite systems.
One thing Canada does not have, though, is a launch capability. Satellites built by or for Canadian companies, or the Canadian government, must launch on vehicles in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere. One Toronto-based startup, Kepler, launched the first cubesat in its planned constellation to provide communications services earlier this year as a secondary payload on a Chinese Long March 11.
That lack of indigenous launch capability in Canada, even as dozens of companies and countries elsewhere develop launch systems, was a point of discussion at last month’s Canadian SmallSat Symposium in Toronto. And while there is interest in developing launch systems in the country, the path ahead appears difficult.
For now, the best opportunity for a Canadian launch capability involves a vehicle that would be built outside of Canada but launched from the country. Maritime Launch Services (MLS), a US-based company, is moving ahead with plans to launch Ukrainian Cyclone-4M rockets from a site it will develop near Canso, Nova Scotia.
“Right now, the longest pole in our timeline is the environmental assessment,” said Yaroslav Pustovyi, vice president of MLS, during a conference presentation February 15. An environment assessment report regarding the launch site was scheduled to be submitted to the provincial government that month. Barring any problems with the review, he said the company could start construction of the site this summer.
The company chose Canso because of the isolated location (local residents, he said, say the town “is not at the end of the Earth, but you can clearly see it from here”) that offers clear paths over the Atlantic for launching into Sun-synchronous orbits. It’s also relatively close to the United States, which helps simplify the logistics for shipping American-built payloads there for launch.
The current MLS schedule, he said, called for first launches of the Cyclone-4M from Canso in 2021. Once in service, the medium-class vehicle will be able to place more than 3,000 kilograms into Sun-synchronous orbits launching at an estimated price of $45 million.
That combination of cost and capacity—too large for smallsats and at a price that may not be much less than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 once it starts discounting prices on reused vehicles—raised some eyebrows in the industry, who wonder how competitive the vehicle will be.
“We know there is a demand,” Pustovyi said in an interview. Customers, he said, may be focused on factors other than launch price, such as schedule assurance. “I think it comes down to the ability of the launch company to deliver on their promise. This is one of the most important selling points.”
The company is still raising money, although Pustovyi declined to discuss details about those efforts. “It’s probably the hardest part of any such project,” he said.
MLS is also working through the regulatory approval processes. “We’re well on our way. We’re on schedule,” he said. Besides the environmental assessment for the launch site, the company is working with Nav Canada on access to airspace, and will ultimately need to get a license from Transport Canada. There are also export issues, he said, including the export of the Cyclone-4M from Ukraine to Canada.
The idea of developing a Canadian launch capability, even one using imported rockets, is not new. “Every now and then, every two or three years, a new idea pops up about how we’re going to build a new Canadian rocket and make Canada a true space power,” Pustovyi said.
This appears to be another of those times. Pustovyi’s talk at the conference was followed by a panel discussion on developing a Canadian launch capability, including some early-stage startups with ambitions to develop launch vehicles in Canada.
Dan Steinhaur, president of Stein Industries Inc., said he’s been involved in development of an engine that traces its roots back to Canadian Arrow, a team in the Ansari X PRIZE suborbital spaceflight competition. Tests of that engine are planned for June or July. “From that data, we’re going to carry on with the development of a launcher, if there is a market demand for that product,” he said.
Space Horizon is another startup seeking to raise money for development of a launch vehicle that could place up to 2,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. Philip Berthiaume, president of the company, said he’s seen strong interest from the diaspora of Canadians working on space projects around the world who like to return to Canada to work on a launch project.
“I’ve started to receive unsolicited resumes from both students and engineers,” he said. “They’re all around the world, all Canadian. They’re prepared to drop what they’re doing and come home and work on my project.”
Steinhaur also cited a desire to retain Canadian talent in the country. “We as a nation cannot afford the brain drain that occurs” when students pursue space careers outside the country.
There is considerable interest in spaceflight at the student level. Another conference panel featured representatives from several student rocketry groups at colleges across the country, some of whom have done well at competitions that include the Spaceport America Cup, a collegiate rocketry competition held in June in New Mexico.
“We have in Canada a talent pool of students doing rocketry,” said Jean-Pierre Hickey, an assistant professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo. However, he said they often end up working outside of aerospace. “These students are getting hired by Apple, they’re getting hired by Tesla, they’re getting hired by Google.”
The talent may be there, but funding is a problem. While American launch vehicle companies have found some success raising money from venture capital firms and other investors, their Canadian counterparts face a steeper path to funding.
“When I speak to investors, the reaction is typically that they tilt their heads to the side and look at me as if I was coming from outer space,” said Berthiaume. “There needs to be an education process as to what exactly is involved and why it’s not impossible for us to achieve it.”
“The first thing that an investor does when they hear I’m talking about outer space is that this invisible door closes,” he added. “They think it’s not us, it’s not something Canadians do, that the risk is too high. But it’s not.”
That raised the question of what role the Canadian government should play in stimulating a Canadian launch industry. Few looked to the Canadian Space Agency, its small budget tied up in ISS and satellite projects, for much help.
“CSA has a limited budget,” said Randall Lilko, a director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association. “Why they should be involved actually at all in a launch system occasionally escapes me.” He suggested other government agencies could play a role, including tax breaks for technology companies that invest in launch efforts.
Panelists agreed, though, that even with government support, any Canadian launch system needed to be commercially viable to be sustainable and provide long-term benefits to the country’s space industry.
“This is an integral part of being a space power,” said Pustovyi, who also participated in the panel discussion on Canadian launch capabilities. “We need to have space access.”