New Space Race Heats Up On Earth

New Space Race Heats Up On Earth

Born from Cold War-era competition among great powers, space launches originally were at the direction of civilian government agencies like NASA and military ones such as the U.S. Department of Defense.

Private companies and western governments looking to operate their own communication or other satellites had to contract with NASA to get them into orbit. Sensing an opportunity, the European Space Agency created Ariane, first launched in 1979, and later Arianespace in 1984 as a private company to conduct future commercial operations. This development, combined with the ultimately unsuccessful move from expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) to the Space Shuttle orbiter fleet, marked the inauspicious beginning of the commercial launch services business.

Space Shuttle Columbia first flew in 1981, the system was declared operational the next year, and was followed in 1983 by the cessation of federal funding of ELVs in hopes the planned operational tempo of a growing orbiter fleet would meet demand. Although missed by all except the most ardent of space industry observers, the first successful American private launch took place on September 9, 1982, with Space Services Inc. of America’s prototype Conestoga 1 rocket taking off from Matagorda Island in Texas.

The approval process for the latter, however, proved so onerous as to spur Congress to debate reforms, only to be bogged down over which executive-branch agency would play the leading role. Instead, on July 4, 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued national security decision directive (NSDD) 42, “National Space Policy,” prioritizing expansion of the private sector in civilian space activities. Subsequently, the President’s Senior Interagency Group of Space identified a variety of potential benefits including a high-technology industrial base, thousands of jobs, spinoff opportunities, heightened U.S. global status, a market for excess hardware and related material, as well as potential usage of government and related facilities.

The move proved prescient. The shuttles proved less reliable than hoped and cost the lives of two crews with the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters. Decades later, paucity has given way to ubiquitousness as a fledgling commercial launch industry has matured and proliferated to such an extent as to become a brand in and of itself. New Space, explains Teal Group analyst Marco Cáceres, is a colloquial term to describe “hundreds (perhaps thousands) of new entrepreneurial satellite and launch vehicle companies entering the market just in the past few years.”

A previous article from this publication covered the challenges of establishing commercial space launch sites, as well as highlighting a few spaceports around the world. In recent months, however, a new commercial spaceport has received its licensing and begun to make headlines from an unexpected, yet geographically advantageous location: Nova Scotia.

Setting Sail

About four years ago, Stephen Matier, founder, CEO and director of Maritime Launch Services Ltd., moved to Nova Scotia in hopes of establishing a one-of-a-kind facility. An engineer with a background as a NASA contractor, Matier had been searching for a coastal North America location to establish a commercial launch site. While some existing locations have been accommodating commercial launchers, many are federally owned and prioritize government missions. Maritime Launch considered 13 locations across North America, finally settling on Canso, about three and half hours north of Halifax, the province’s capital. Nova Scotia provided a few unique benefits to the establishment of a spaceport, including ocean access, distance from local populations and minimal air and marine traffic, and a range of launch inclinations east and south over the Atlantic Ocean from 45.1 to 98.1 degrees.

Robert Feierbach, president of Maritime Launch USA, shared what the early days of Spaceport Nova Scotia entailed. “After Matier moved to the area, he started talking to the local businesses, communities and First Nations, just to really understand their concerns. What were the things they were worried about? What would they like to see happen with an establishment like a launch site?” These four years of community discussion led to a social approval license, and, just last year, to a license to launch a five-ton payload vehicle, or a medium class vehicle. “Our local host communities, the Mi’kmaq and all Nova Scotians, can be confident that we will build and operate the spaceport with a focus on safety and environmental stewardship,” said Matier. “This was our focus when we began the initiative years ago and it remains our commitment for the future.”

To date, the site’s test launchpad is underway, which will be the location of the spaceport’s first suborbital launch in July of this year. This will feature a small rocket that will reach an altitude of roughly 30 kilometers. Near the end of the year, Maritime Launch hopes for their first orbital launch using the smaller scale infrastructure. In the meantime, Feierbach explained, the main launchpad and facility will be under construction, with a tentative completion date of 2025.

Spaceport Nova Scotia provides a new and unique opportunity for Canadians nationwide and especially within the province. “Canada has a fairly buoyant satellite manufacturing capability,” said Feierbach. “Now, the fashion is to build satellite constellations — smaller ones that work in sync, as opposed to one or two big satellites. This means you need more of them to achieve the same kind of coverage and each only lasts three to five years. That creates a great opportunity for the manufacturing industry.”

Buoyant Market

Currently, about 7,500 active satellites orbit Earth and on average 50 take to the heavens every week, according to an April 2023 report published by McKinsey & Company. Many of these, like those proposed by Maritime Launch, operate in constellations, serving commercial applications from remote sensing to communications to navigation. As of this March, the report states, there were more than 5,000 communications satellites, having increased by about 15% per year since 2017. About 1,000 remain active for Earth observation and 1,500 for technology development, research and other missions. Current plans include up to 65,000 new satellites for communications and 3,000 for other needs. As the space economy and exploration expand, launch needs could increase further to accommodate unprecedented applications — like tourism.

As McKinsey authors Chris Daehnick, John Gang and Ilan Rosenkopf explain, “New companies are constantly entering the market and much uncertainty persists about their ambitions, as well as those of more established players. Forecasts for the number of constellations, and therefore required launch capabilities, thus vary widely.” Additionally, these new constellations will influence demand for services like intersatellite links, ground terminals, analytical support, in-orbit maneuvering and debris removal.

Industry growth aside, Maritime Launch’s Canso site will support the province and its residents, as stated by Nova Scotian premier Tim Houston in a press release: “This is a good day for Nova Scotia — particularly rural Nova Scotia — as Spaceport Nova Scotia will create many jobs, education and partnership opportunities while boosting the province’s economy. We’re proud to be a destination for the growing and competitive global commercial space industry.” Ultimately, the site could represent Canada’s launch abilities to the global space sector and lead to further growth through international collaborations.

Global Ambitions

Maritime Launch is working primarily with Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, the developers of the Cyclone-4M (C4M) lift vehicle, which is a two-staged monoblock medium-lift launcher for commercial missions to low Earth orbit (LEO). According to Maritime Launch’s website, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash are a key supplier to Europe’s Arianespace Vega rocket and to Northrop Grumman’s Antares launch vehicle for its cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.

The website further details the Cyclone-4M’s capabilities, including launching a single dedicated spacecraft into precise orbits, or an aggregation of satellites into a constellation. Additionally, “multiple-restart capability of the second stage engine allows deployment to several orbital destinations on the same flight.”

With a license for eight launches of medium-class rockets, Spaceport Nova Scotia plans to collaborate with other companies, too, shared Feierbach. Reaction Dynamics, based outside of Montreal, is one partner that has already been announced. Another is Skyrora, a company in Scotland. If upcoming tests go well, Feierbach said, there’s hope of launching the Skyrora XL from Nova Scotia next year.

“At the end of the day, though, we’ll probably have a maximum of three or so launchers on site — otherwise it can become a bit much. A launch every week isn’t what we or the province were looking for,” explained Feierbach. He chuckled, adding that they can’t launch at the start or end of lobster season, in observance of the fisherman and local economy.

Choppy Waters or Following Seas?

Maritime Launch will be entering an increasingly crowded market, as New Space only continues to expand. “The hard part,” Cáceres explained, “is to attract launch services companies to conduct their launches from the facility when it is completed and to ensure that those launch companies can actually attract a fair amount of payload customers for their services.”

The McKinsey report outlines how launch companies can best place themselves in such a turbulent and fast-paced industry. “The best placed launch companies in this context will pursue strategies that maximize flexibility and cost control,” noted the authors. “This implies design and manufacturing approaches that allow for rapid deployment and scaling of capacity without incurring large fixed or variable costs, and operational approaches that reduce time to launch and associated labor costs.” Safety and reliability will continue to be overarching concerns, they added, and strong customer service in terms of tailoring launch needs could provide an edge if prices remain competitive. Long-term or multiple launch contracts may also attract customers who want more certainty than historic launch-by-launch deals.

Maritime Launch’s optimism appears warranted though, as commercial launches have grown in number and the Canso location offers unique advantages in land space, launch inclinations and global collaborations. “The advent of SpaceX and its ability to perfect reusable launch technology and launch infinitely more per month and per year than anyone thought possible has generated a lot of confidence in the strength and potential of the space industry,” explained Cáceres. “This trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”

Like all new ventures, Spaceport Nova Scotia has its work cut out. Yet its location and focus motivated those involved to deliver on the potential for the site and commercial launches globally. As the space industry becomes increasingly commercialized, Maritime Launch is poised to boost Nova Scotia’s profile, not only within Canada, but around the world and indeed above it. Let the New Space race commence.