It might come as a surprise to most Canadians but Canada has never launched a rocket into orbit. Sure we were the third country in the world to build our own satellite, the Alouette, but it was launched by the U.S. on an American rocket. Sure we’ve sent astronauts into space, built the Canadarm, Canadarm2, Dextre, have satellites in orbit and even sent instruments to Mars. But sending a rocket into orbit, never.
That could all change though if Open Space Orbital has its way.
The new company based out of Nova Scotia led by young engineer Tyler Reyno is now going public with its plans to develop a small satellite rocket launcher, called Neutrino 1, which would be capable of launching small satellites weighing up to 50kg into orbit and is looking to the public to provide the initial seed money to get the company off the ground.
Today Open Space Orbital launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter, arguably the most popular crowdfunding site. The money will be used to setup an office in Halifax, continue its preliminary research, and most importantly, continue the process of fundraising from private and government sources.
While Canada has no history of launching rockets into orbit, we do have a long history of launching sub-orbital rockets to the edge of space to conduct research for short duration flights that don’t go into orbit.
That history dates back to the 50’s when Canada working with the U.S. military setup base at Fort Churchill in Manitoba on Hudson Bay. All told over 3,300 sub-orbital rockets where launched by the U.S. military and Canada from Fort Churchill. The last one to fly from Fort Churchill was in 1998 for the Canadian Space Agency.
It should be noted that Canada became a leader in developing sounding rockets, or research rockets, for sub-orbital flights. Bristol Aerospace, now a part of Magellan Aerospace, and headquartered in Winnipeg developed the popular Black Brant sounding rocket.
Interestingly, Bristol Aerospace never felt there was a business case to develop a rocket for orbital launch.
But as Bob Dylan said in his famous 1964 titled album, “The times they are a-changin'”.
Today the small satellite market is growing at an exponential rate. The reason for this rapid growth is that the cost barrier to enter the market has been greatly reduced. This is due to several factors including but not limited to satellite miniaturization of components, the use of commercial off the shelf components and new lower cost launch platforms such as secondary payload, or hitchhiking if you will, on a launch of a rocket with a larger primary payload. As well, NanoRacks, a commercial reseller of research space and other services for the International Space Station (ISS) has setup a small launch platform to launch CubeSats on the ISS.
There have been several studies published in the last couple of years that all point to the growth and market size of small satellites. Euroconsult concluded in 2012 report that over 1000 satellites would be launched between 2012 – 2021. That study included all satellite sizes. However a recent SpaceWorks study concluded that there are 650 nano/microsatellites (1-50 kg) that will be developed in the next two years.
Within a year, one company, Planet Labs out of California will launch over 100 CubeSats (6kg). This is in addition to the 28 CubeSats or what they call the Flock 1 constellation of satellites already in orbit imaging the Earth.
For Open Space Orbital the time is now to enter the market. No Canadian company currently provides launch services. If you build a satellite in Canada then you have to launch it with a foreign provider. And while the costs to this approach is getting cheaper it does come with one big caveat. You have to wait, sometime years, before you can get your satellite launched. And to some and most assuredly for new commercial companies wanting to enter the market, waiting years is unacceptable.
The crowdfunding campaign is just the first step. Reyno told SpaceRef that the company will need $50 million over the longer-term to make the venture successful. “From facility development and full employment to concept testing and prototype manufacturing, contract reception and vehicle assembly to mission control and management, that’s what it’s believed it will cost to place a payload under 50 kg into orbit.”
I asked Reyno why use crowdfunding. His answer was direct. Traditional funding sources weren’t stepping up to help them get off the ground. And while Reyno has invested his own funds, they aren’t enough to get the venture started in a serious way. Crowdfunding was the next and last resort.
Crowdfunding though has proven successful for other ventures. In fact many have raised millions in funds. In the space sector the largest to date was the Planetary Resources campaign which raised over $1.5 million for ARKYD, a space telescope the public could use.
For Reyno though the crowdfunding campaign is primarily to get the company started. Reyno said “If we are to be successful in this effort, we would consider using this method again, but our plan is for this Kickstarter to place us in a position to maximize private and/or governmental funding; for this campaign and its funding to help us establish ourselves as the Canadian contender to invest in.”
I also asked Reyno what the price would be to launch a 50kg payload on their rocket. He said “In a perfect world, it is agreed that a price point of $1,000,000 would revolutionize the satellite industry, not only drastically changing the way current manufacturers operate, but also opening the doors for new, emerging companies to get involved in ways that were previously unforeseeable due to launch costs. Similar to when the smartphone was released and opened the doors for a revolutionary new smartphone application market, a launch vehicle with a customer price of $1,000,000 would serve as a platform for a new generation of smallsat developers, through which I’m sure we’d see some very creative and eye-opening applications being presented. That said, we want to do everything in our power to approach that goal long-term, but also understand it won’t be easy where that is typically referred to as the “floor” cost of launching an orbital rocket. ”
One company that has been innovating and reducing launch costs is SpaceX. But while they’ve had some success to date, to be truly successful, according to them, is if they can make their first and second stage reusable. If they succeed then they feel the barrier to send payloads to space will be low enough that the market will grow exponentially and open space to all sorts of opportunities.
For Reyno though that is goal that is much further down the road. “Reusability is a well-recognized approach to driving down the cost of space transportation and exploration. That said, it is more complex than simply developing the capability to retrieve and reuse what you’ve flown (incorporating retrievable and reusable technologies into your vehicle increases its weight, which in turn increases the cost of manufacturing, which in turn has an impact on the price point faced by customers). On that note, we are concentrating, as a first initiative, on incorporating cost-effective light, modern composites and simplifying pre-existing liquid propulsion systems to decrease the cost of launch with reusability held in mind for consideration after we’ve proven our ability to place payloads into orbit.”
Another emerging costs saving measure is additive manufacturing (3D printing). I asked Reyno his thoughts on additive manufacturing for use by his company. “Additive manufacturing is intriguing, but, like launch vehicle reusability, it is also demonstrates certain characteristics which actually increase the cost of manufacturing. That said, it has been seen that a small rocket nozzle can be additively manufactured and successfully tested, so it may prove to be a viable option if it complies with our main objectives of lowering cost, designing to maximize operability, balancing risk and innovation, and providing a fast, reliable timeline to smallsat customers as primary payloads.”
Open Space Orbital isn’t the first company to try and enter the launch business in Canada. In fact the most recent company to try was PlanetSpace.
PlanetSpace was a Chicago based company that had aspirations to launch payloads and people to Low Earth Orbit. In 2007 they entered into an unfunded agreement with NASA whereby “NASA will share information that will help PlanetSpace understand projected requirements for space station crew and cargo transportation, launch vehicles and spacecraft, and NASA human rating criteria.”
Unfortunately for PlanetSpace they weren’t able to raise the funds or secure a contract with NASA and had to abandon their plans. PlanetSpace had considered launching from Alder Point near Sydney in Nova Scotia. That also happens to be the location favoured by Open Space Orbital.
Alder Point area Nova Scotia, a possible location for the launch site. Image courtesy Google Maps
Reyno is not alone in this venture. Joining him and adding credibility to the venture are a Board of Directors that include former Nova Scotia Premier and Senator John Buchanan, Alain Berinstain, former Director of Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy at the Canadian Space Agency, Andrew Rader and many other experienced professionals.
Leading the vehicle design efforts is engineer Adam Trumpur who is currently a Concept Designer at Pratt & Whitney Canada. Trumpur was has worked on an Ansari X-Prize vehicle and propulsion at Continuum Aerospace.
I first learned of this venture three months ago and I know that Reyno and his team have been working on this venture for many months before I became aware of it. Their goal is a worthy one and I believe Canada needs its own launch capability.
Will they succeed? Frankly I don’t know. What I do know is that Reyno and his team are reaching out to the public. In some cases crowdfunding has proven to be a very successful avenue for getting businesses off the ground. If the public believes in Reyno and his team and funds them, then they have a shot.