The Ongoing Made in Canada Space Race: Who Will Build the Nations First Orbital Launch Vehicle

Students from across Canada showed their skills winning several awards at the 2018 Spaceport America Cup. Credit: Michel Wander, CSA.

There is a space race ongoing in Canada and it’s not what you might expect. In fact, it’s flying under the radar and the government is ill-prepared to deal with it because frankly they’re not paying enough attention.

Some brief history

A decade ago the Canadian Space Agency commissioned a study called the Microsatellite Launch System Technical Feasibility Study. The study was completed in March of 2009 and it confirmed that the capability of launching a 150kg payload to a 800km sun-synchronous orbit would meet Canada’s needs. The cost for the seven year program to develop a liquid oxygen paraffin three stage hybrid rocket and launch site was estimated to be $187M. The rocket could also launch a 275kg payload to a 350km circular polar orbit. Nothing would come of this study.

Also happening a decade ago was the first successful SpaceX Falcon 1 launch on September 28. SpaceX would disrupt the marketplace from that day forward with its “can do” attitude and an innovation culture egged on by Elon Musk in which some could not cope with his tenacious drive for success.

At the time, established launch companies literally laughed at him and his ideas.

Musk’s drive to succeed was fuelled in late 2001 in part by the Russians. He wanted to fly a payload to Mars. He approached the Russians to purchase a Dnepr-1 rocket for the launch. If you know Musk, you know he gets straight to the point, is focussed on the objective and wants the outcome he planned. The Russians toyed with him and didn’t take him seriously, so he left and on the flight back planned out in detail the company that would become known as SpaceX. The Russians rue it to this day.

CSA Microsat Launcher Study rocket renderings
CSA Microsat Launcher Study rocket renderings. Credit: Continuum Aerospace/Canadian Space Agency.

The Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition and Canada

In 2006 the first annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) began. In 2011 Canadian students started competing and have built up a reputation as skilled competitors. Canadians not only compete, they are winning competition after competition.

Today there are over 500 students across Canada who compete from various Canadian university teams. Some of the graduated students are now becoming entrepreneurs.

What’s important to note here is that these students are part of a new generation that grew up in a era where SpaceX blazed a trail for them to follow. There’s a new mindset, a new culture. That mindset and culture takes the form so often associated with our youth, we’re invincible, we can do this. The difference though now, is that mindset and culture are being applied to the rocket industry. These students, using SpaceX, and now Blue Origin as their inspiration, are saying “we can do this”.

It’s not something the government was prepared for, or planned to tap into. Successive Canadian governments scoffed at the idea of the need of launch capability built in, and for Canada. Current regulations are so outdated that startups are having to figure out for themselves how launch should be regulated and will approach government once they’re ready.

According to Marc Garneau, when I asked him if the outdated regulatory framework for suborbital and orbital launches were being updated, he replied he didn’t know and that I was the first to ask him this.

ROCKETS IN MY BASEMENT from MACFAB on Vimeo.

The Canada Rocket Innovation Challenge

Last week at the Montreal Space Symposium, an excellent conference organized and managed by students, Adam Trumpour, a co-author of the Microsatellite Launch Study announced the Canada Rocket Innovation Challenge. It is the product of the tremendous growth of student rocketry in Canada and the success in IREC competitions. It is aimed at building on this groundswell of student interest to foster more startups in the space sector and not limited to just rocket companies.

Trumpour raised $30K in pledges earlier this year when the idea was first floated. He’ll need more money to make it happen. As well, he’ll need a place for the competitors to launch their rockets. He says the Royal Canadian Air Force has some interest. He’ll also need the regulations changed to allow the launches to take place. Over to you Mr. Garneau.

According to Trumpour “the competition is aimed at helping Canada’s highly motivated and rapidly growing student rocketry community to take their activities to the next level, while providing them with an unprecedented learning opportunity, harnessing the excitement of rocketry and space to promote STEM education, and generating public awareness of Canada’s space industry and talent.”

“The intent of the competition is to break down the silos between academia, industry and government, and unite them with Canada’s grassroots rocketeers. At the same time, it will place a major focus on innovation, and encourage the students to think entrepreneurially and develop not only hands-on engineering skills, but even novel technologies that could be of use to industry.”

The Space Concordia Rocketry Division Team
The Space Concordia Rocketry Division Team. Credit: Space Concordia.

The changing marketplace

It’s not just the inspiration of SpaceX that’s driving students. The business case for small satellite launch vehicles has changed in the last 10 years. The miniaturization of satellite components along with using commercial off the shelf products has fuelled what some are now calling a revolution in the satellite marketplace. The need for large satellites isn’t going away, but the ongoing proliferation of small satellites has necessitated another disruption in the launch market, the need for smaller launch vehicles dedicated to the small satellite market.

Think about this statistic. There are 1,400+ active satellites in orbit of all sizes. It took decades to reach this point. There could be more than 5,000 satellites added in the next 10 years alone. Even if you look at the low end of the forecasts and cut that down further, we’re still talking about over 1,000 satellites in the next five years. And the high end number isn’t even taking into account what might come from new spacefaring nations.

These countries are now looking at the socio-economic benefits of space for their countries and you can bet small satellites for Earth observation will be a part of that picture. And for those new space nations, in April of next year, the International Astronautical Federation is organizing the first large scale conference for emerging space nations in Morocco.

The startups

Today in Canada, a startup is working on developing an orbital launch vehicle that will one day make history by launching the first payload to orbit on a Made in Canada rocket.

How many startups are there? And how many are credible? From what I understand there are three companies in which we can talk about today. There are others that have been around for some time, but they just don’t appear to have the proper mix of personnel to make it happen. And there are still others just not ready to talk. All will need funding.

Reaction Dynamics logoReaction Dynamics – This is one of the companies that was born out of the IREC competition and includes graduates from Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, Concordia and McGill University. Of the three companies discussed here they seem to have the most credibility.

The company was founded by Bachar Elzein and Neil Woodcook. They’ve developed a prototype hybrid engine with a proprietary fuel mix that has had some preliminary testing, and will be tested again this week. They are based in Ville Saint-Laurent on the island of Montreal for now, but are planning to move to a better space. They have also leased the old mine in Thetford Mines to conduct their engine tests.

The company has demonstrated enough progress to raise a little over $400k, of which half is from angel investors and the other half from their first grant from the Canadian Space Agency. Importantly, they appear to understand the delicate balance needed between product development and fundraising. To that end they have signed $60M in letters of intent from prospective customers including one that SpaceQ is privy to and which is a growing entity in its own right.

I spent some time in their offices last week and the atmosphere was that I’ve seen of other startups. The idea for the company was floated in 2014, and in 2017 began in earnest, which is when I first met them.  They appear to understand the challenges ahead of them though they’ve yet to fly their first test rocket. That’s when we’ll have a better idea on their progress. It’s one thing to test an engine on a test stand, it’s altogether that much more difficult to launch a complete rocket and all the critical systems associated with the rocket and have it perform as you hoped it would. They are hoping to do a suborbital test launch by late 2019. An aggressive schedule to be sure, which will be hard to meet.

Their spaceport of choice is the yet to be built Maritime Launch Services spaceport in Nova Scotia. They are also looking globally at other spaceports, as like other small satellite launch companies, they understand that they need to be agile in where they launch from to meet customer demands.

Critical to their business plan is a lead time of 3 months from contract signing to launch. Talk to any small satellite customer and they’ll tell you the most important aspect of choosing a launch provider is launch scheduling. The sooner the better, and it had better be a reliable launch date.

The Reaction Dynamics rocket would deliver 30kg to 150kg to a nominal 500k sun-synchronous orbit for $30k to $50k per kg. So a minimum of $900,000 to a maximum of $7.5M at current prices.

They were accepted and are participating in the first space stream of the Creative Destruction Lab.

Reaction Dynamics timeline.
Reaction Dynamics timeline. Credit Reaction Dynamics.

Loonify SpaceLoonify Space Not too much is known about Loonify. The co-founders are Sohrab Haghighat and Saharnaz Safari. The Toronto based company was started in January of this year. It’s been in stealth mode until recently. According to their website they are planning on offering “affordable, on-schedule, dedicated launch for CubeSats.” In an email to SpaceQ Safari described their service as an “end-to-end launch service for CubeSats.”

They are using a different approach to launch, using a stratospheric balloon as part of their system. Their stratospheric balloon will take an “ultra-light rocket to high altitude, where it is launched in near vacuum conditions, avoiding the stress and costs of the high speed travel through dense layers of atmosphere.”

In August, in a joint press release with Solar Ship, they announced they would use Solar Ship’s “innovative airship technology and extensive balloon launch experience.”

Loonify was also accepted and are participating in the first space stream of the Creative Destruction Lab.

Safari Graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Masters in Science (Bioanalytical Chemistry) and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California.

Haghighat also graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Masters of Applied Science (Mechanical Engineering) and has a PhD from the University of Toronto in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering.

Their product, a balloon and rocket launch service, is similar to the European Zero 2 Infinity Bloostar launcher.

Space Horizon LogoSpace Horizon Is the brainchild of Philip Berthiaume. Philip is not a young rocket engineer. He’s a veteran political operative more used to working in government along with having an entrepreneurial streak. I recently spoke to Philip who said his company is not quite ready to go on the record. He did hint that his business case is slightly different than other launch startups. In the coming months, or early spring, we should be hearing more about this self-funded company. Philip is very serious and doesn’t strike me as someone who wastes his time on any effort. All I can stay is, stay tuned.

Of spaceports

Canada has no spaceports. Maritime Launch Services is currently in the early stages of getting approval and funding to build a spaceport in Canso, Nova Scotia. SpaceQ is closely following the company and the topic.

What’s of note is that the demand for a Canadian spaceport is increasing. At the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s Ready for Launch, Preparing Canada for a future in Space conference last week, Kenneth Hodgkins, Director of the Office Space and Advanced Technology, U.S. State Department, a space veteran, surprised many by diving right into the commercial launch sector in his opening remarks. He said he had been in Canada in September to talk to the four emerging “launching states”, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. I can tell you there were surprised glances in the audience to learn that Canada was an emerging launching state, and I’m sure that included some people at ISED. He also said 2-3 American companies were wanting to use a spaceport in Nova Scotia. This might include Rocket Labs and Vector Space Systems. And of note, Vector’s CEO Jim Cantrell was with Elon Musk when he went to Russia, was on the plane with him when the concept of SpaceX was born and was its second employee. Oh, and this past week Vector announced US$70M in a Series B fundraising round.

Hodgkins also intimated that the U.S. is bullish on some of its key partners becoming launching states. In discussing the September meeting, Hodgkins said they discussed many things including “what it means to be a launching state, how can we coordinate what we’re trying to do, how do we look at commercial ventures, in this case the United States, commercial companies using Nova Scotia in this case, as a staging ground for their own commercial launches, and what are the implications for opening up a whole new level of capacity for government as well as non-government launching of satellites.”

For those who believe in Canada becoming a launching state, Hodgkins words are music to their ears. The unofficial Made in Canada space race is on. Who will build the nations first orbital launch vehicle?

Maritime Launch Services Cyclone 4M rocket
Maritime Launch Services Cyclone 4M rocket. Credit: Maritime Launch Services.
MDA

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.