KYIV – As Canada and Ukraine prepare to launch a Free Trade Agreement on Aug. 1, scientists and entrepreneurs from both countries are working toward a different kind of launch: Ukrainian rockets from Canada’s first spaceport in 2020.
Under a $226 million joint venture, Ukrainians are to design and build rockets in Dnipro and launch them from a new spaceport in Canso, on Nova Scotia’s eastern tip. Canada once had a rocket base, in Churchill, Manitoba, from 1956 to 1984. Located on the Hudson Bay, this was a government-run, sub-orbital test facility.
The new spaceport, a profit-making venture, would launch rockets capable of placing satellites into earth orbit. The project is the brainchild of Maritime Launch Systems, or MLS, a joint venture of three American firms.
The company says it has signed letters of intent with four payload customers and is lining up financing.
“We’ve had serious discussions with several entities for the next round of financing,” John Isella, MLS CEO, said in an interview here. “We expect letters of intent in the very near future.”
To break into the medium-class launch market, MLS will use Ukrainian-designed and fabricated Cyclone 4M rockets. The company will offer sun-synchronous launches to up to 800 km or a low earth orbit launches below 600 km.
Isella foresees growth in this medium-class launch market, especially for satellites used for aerial imagery networks.
“More than 25 concepts are being worked on right now,” Isella said of these networks. “Even if only three or four are successful, there will be a huge demand for launches.”
The rockets will be designed by Yuzhnoye Design Office and built by Yuzhmash. Both companies are in Dnipro, 500 km south of Kyiv. Isella has worked with Yuzhnoye for the last nine years, including the last two years on this project.
MLS has budgeted $110 million to develop the spaceport and $116 to engineer and manufacture the first rockets.
Yuzmash dates back to 1944 and Yuzhnoye to 1954.
“The components are already developed,” Isella said. Using proven components “reduces the need for investment, enhances the credibility of the effort, and improves the financial and technical risks.”
The company will have to compete with Russia’s Soyuz-ST rockets. Russia had a monopoly on this market until the emergence a decade ago of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. These are only two rockets offering sun-synchronous launches.
Isella says MLS has a commercial edge due to its North American location and low development costs.
Soyuz-ST rockets are launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan or the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, South America. The Indian rockets are launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India.
Isella says MLS has signed launch order letters of intent with four companies. Each would carry a payload of up to 5,000 kg, for a price of $45 million per launch. The company expects up to eight launches per year.
An unexpected competitor might come from Elon Musk, the Canadian-American founder of Space X. In March, Musk launched from Florida the world’s first reusable rocket. After 15 years and $1 billion of research, Musk succeeded in re-launching a rocket that had earlier landed on a floating landing pad.
For now, this technology is seen as too experimental to be insurable and commercially viable.
In Dnipro, a one-hour flight south of Kyiv, about 20 Ukrainians are working on the Canadian project. They are designing the launch site and systems, manufacturing and testing rockets, and preparing to handle mission operations. All facility and equipment design work will be done in Ukraine.
Eventually, Isella expects up to 50 Ukrainian scientists and technicians to work at Canso year-round. Next month, MLS is post its first permanent employees in Canso. With only a hospital heliport, Canso is normally reached by a 3-hour, 300 km drive east from the province’s only international airport, at Halifax.
If rocket launches are to start in 2020, construction should start spring at the future launchpad, 2.5 km south of town.
If the spaceport becomes a reality, it will represent a big change for Canso, a village that bills itself: “Oldest Fishing Port on Mainland North America.” Founded in 1604, the village boomed with fishing. It fell on hard times with the late 20th century collapse of cod stocks in the North Atlantic. Five years ago, Canso’s population was only 806.
A spaceport would please one native son, a man who devoted his life to studying the stars.
Carlyle Smith Beals was born in Canso in 1899. He grew up to become one of Canada’s eminent astronomers.
Beals developed astronomical instruments, studied emission lines in hot stars, gas clouds in the interstellar medium and meteorite craters across Canada, the world’s second largest nation, after Russia. In his honor, the asteroid 3314 Beals and the crater Beals on the Moon are both named after him.
With the spaceport, the stars that once fascinated this boy on Nova Scotia’s desolate eastern tip will now be one step closer to Canso.
For comments or news tips, please contact UBJ Reporter Lee Reaney at email@example.com.
UBJ Editor in Chief James Brooke contributed reporting to this story.
Posted July 7, 2017