Maritime Launch Services Spaceport Proposal Reaches Important Milestone

MLS artist rendering of the vertical launch area. Credit: MLS.

There have been several attempts in the past to start a commercial spaceport from scratch in Canada, but none have reached the milestone of completing and submitting an environmental assessment for review by the jurisdiction in which they want to launch. And while Maritime Launch Services has reached this milestone, there’s still the hurdle of funding to surmount.

The last rocket to launch from Canada was on April 28, 1998. It was a suborbital Black Brant 9B rocket built by then Bristol Aerospace, now Magellan Aerospace, and it carried the ACTIVE Ionosphere payload for the Canadian Space Agency. The launch was the first and only commercial launch by Akjuit Aerospace who had leased the Churchill Rocket Research Range from the government.

Historically, while Akjuit Aerospace can claim to have been the first to launch a rocket in Canada from a commercial spaceport, it was not an orbital launch and they did have the benefit of leasing a facility that had been in use intermittently since the 60’s.

What Maritime Launch Services (MLS) is attempting to do is much more difficult, building a modern day spaceport capable of launching a variety of rockets.

There also seems to be some misunderstanding of what type of company MLS is. It is not a rocket company, and it is not building an orbital launch vehicle. Rather, MLS is a service provider. That service is meant to be a ready made spaceport that is launcher agnostic.

MLS is planning on signing a contract with the Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Office to supply MLS with their Cyclone M4 rocket. As well, MLS said in April that they had signed a Letter of Intent with another launch company other than Yuzhnoye Design Office.

There also seems to be some confusion, deliberate or simply mistaken, that MLS is a front for the Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye and naysayers pointing to the government of Ukraine’s and Yuzhnoye’s attempt to build a spaceport in Brazil that failed as a reason why this project shouldn’t go forward.

MLS rendering of a rocket launch
Artist rendering of a rocket launch. Credit: MLS.

That project was a government to government program that failed for a variety of reasons, none of which are relevant here. In this instance, MLS is a Canadian private commercial venture led by Americans. The Canadian government has no stake in MLS, nor have they offered any funds. It is also clear that successive Canadian governments don’t see the need for a government sponsored spaceport in Canada. So don’t expect to see the government funding MLS. However, in the mindset of “build it and they will come”, various government departments could potentially become customers and some of have expressed interest, including the Department of Defence.

Likewise, the Ukrainian government and Yuzhnoye do not have a stake in MLS. The relationship between Yuzhnoye and MLS is that of supplier to customer.

Make no mistake about it though, while MLS’s spaceport is launcher agnostic, its business plan relies on Yuzhnoye, as a supplier, being able to provide a rocket and Yuzhnoye has a history of providing reliable rockets. MLS seems confident that Yuzhnoye will fulfill their end of an agreement when it is signed. Should investors agree with MLS’s analysis, then the project could move forward.

The environmental assessment

The official title of the document MLS submitted to the government of Nova Scotia is the Environmental Assessment Registration Document for the Canso Spaceport Project and the assessment was conducted by Strum Consulting and registered on July 4th. As part of the review process, the public can provide input until August 3rd.

The government will provide a decision on or before August 23rd. Their decision could be a simple yes or no, or a request for more information.

The extensive document, including supporting appendices runs over 350 pages and includes;

  • The primary document
  • Appendix A – MLS Certificate of Incorporation
  • Appendix B – Environmental Protection Plan – Table of Contents
  • Appendix C – Launch Noise Study by Blue Ridge Research and Consulting
  • Appendix D – Vegetation Study
  • Appendix E – Wetland Survey
  • Appendix F – Bird Survey
  • Appendix G – Archeological Screening and Reconnaissance by Boreas Heritage Consulting Inc.
  • Appendix H – Mi’kmaq Ecological Knowledge Study by Membertou Geomatic Solutions
  • Appendix I – Public Consultation
  • Appendix J – Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources Letter of Authority

The executive summary states that “a number of environmental components were evaluated for this assessment. Based on field data and associated research, mitigation strategies and best management practices were identified to avoid or mitigate potential effects of the Project for the majority of the components.”

After the preliminary assessment was completed they identified several ecosystem components that warranted further assessment. These included; Atmospheric Environment, Acoustic Environment, Geologic Environment, Freshwater Environment, Terrestrial Habitat, Avifauna Local Demographics,  Recreation and Tourism, Cultural and Heritage Resources,  Aboriginal Resources and Cumulative Effects.

They then concluded that “the results of this assessment indicate that there are no significant environmental concerns or impacts that may result from the Project that cannot be effectively mitigated.”

In other words, Strum Consulting’s concluded that there are no show stoppers from an environmental perspective for MLS to proceed. Now the government will perform its due diligence on the assessment.

Some interesting details

We now have more details on MLS’s interactions with various government departments.

Transport Canada is responsible for rocket launch activity in Canada. Under current regulation, MLS would need a Special Flight Operating Certificate every time it has a planned launch. MLS first met Transport Canada on November 3, 2016 at their regional office in Moncton. Following that meeting MLS provided Transport Canada with a comprehensive project description on December 13, 2016. This coincided with MLS initiating a Nova Scotia Crown land lease application on the same date. The land lease area is outlined in yellow below.

MLS map of spaceport area
MLS map of spaceport area. Credit: MLS.

MLS has also consulted with NAV Canada and the Canadian Space Agency on an ongoing basis. The Canadian Space Agency provided technical assistance to MLS on the layout of the proposed launch site. MLS also had some informal input from the US FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation on their layout.

MLS provided NAV Canada their launch and ground safety proposals which the latter has used to start a formal Aeronautical Study. The study is an important step so that the airspace use can be changed to accommodate the launch proposal and so that a “formalized Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) can be implemented.”

MLS is continuing its collaboration with Transport Canada to ensure that it eventually receives approval to launch.

MLS has also been working with Global Affairs Canada. Any satellite launched by MLS will have to comply with Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. This includes foreign customers. Foreign customers will also have to comply with their own countries export restrictions.

MLS will also needed approval form Public Services and Procurement Canada for the “domestic possession, examination, and transfer of controlled goods and technologies in Canada.”

MLS is also having the Department of Defence review their proposal.

Provincially, MLS is consulting and in need of getting approvals from seven agencies for a variety licenses.

Public consultation and meetings

MLS has held at least 16 public consultations and meetings that they’ve listed in their documentation.

Their last publicly disclosed meeting was held May 16 and was with the Community Liaison Committee (CLC). Some interesting details were discussed.

MLS CEO Steve Matier said that Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her staff are supportive of the project. As well, local MP Roger Cuzner was to visit the site the following day.

Matier had earlier in the month met with MP Cuzner and New Brunswick MP Alaina Lockhart in Ottawa. Lockhart’s riding is Fundy Royal which straddles Saint John and Moncton. On that same trip Matier went to Toronto to visit Jacobs Capital Management, the company they’ve hired to help them raise funds. That meeting included discussions with unnamed potential investors.

Matier also said he had a meeting with maritimes stalwart IMP Aerospace and Defence about potentially working together. A member of the CLC suggested MLS also reach out to Airbus and Stelia Aerospace.

Local employment was raised and Matier said they planned on offering programs that fit the local labour force. MLS is anticipating 120 full-time construction employees in 2019 and 2020. This would be followed by 30 full-time MLS employees and contractors working on-site in 2021 and ramped up to 130 during launch campaigns in 2021. As MLS ramps up its launch cadence, the number of full-time staff would increase to 150 by 2028 and 250 during launch campaigns in 2028.

There was a discussion about how the rockets would reach the launch site. Matier said the components would be shipped to Mulgrave and then barged to Canso. He said there’s also the possibility of having a roro (Roll-on/roll-off) vessel deliver sections to Canso and trucked up to the site. Two rockets will be shipped from the Ukraine at a time.

MLS is still targeting 2021 for its first launch. Ground breaking could happen no earlier than September but is contingent on getting the environmental assessment approved, the land surveyed, the land lease lease issued and funding secured. MLS hopes to start construction this winter.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 18 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 25 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.