MLS, Space Community Celebrates Debut Student Rocket Launch at Spaceport Nova Scotia

York University's Arbalest Rocketry rocket prior to launch. Credit: Caelan Animation.

The debut launch from Maritime Launch Services’ (MLS) Nova Scotia spaceport not only went to plan, but took place with the backing of a huge number of community supporters.

Arbalest Rocketry, a student group from York University, flew their 1.5-meter (5-foot), two-stage rocket successfully to about 44,000 feet on Wednesday (July 6) from the young spaceport at Canso, Nova Scotia, according to MLS.

As of late afternoon in Nova Scotia that day, the first stage was retrieved close to the shoreline while attempted recovery of the second stage – roughly 8 miles (13 km) out in the Atlantic Ocean – was ongoing.

The launch opportunity itself was brokered by Launch Canada, a grassroots rocketry group that gives opportunities to students with industrial sponsorship. There also was a partnership with Precious Payload, which matches rocket slots with science payloads, to put a microchip on board from a school in Saudi Arabia to verify survivability, MLS CEO Steve Matier told SpaceQ.

“We have to get it (the stage) back to see if it did,” Matier said of the Saudi Arabian engineering goal. Given the difficulties in retrieving the stage, he said recovery operations and securing payloads would be among the “lessons learned” from this launch, which took place under experimental rocket regulations under Transport Canada.

More work on making the next launch even smoother will start very soon. “What we’ll do first is pull the entire team together and prepare what’s called an ‘after action report’, where you document all your lessons learned and the things you need to do differently for the next one. What went right, what went wrong, what the actions are to make it right,” Matier said.

The launch was delayed by a single day due to low ceiling (verified by weather balloon), but otherwise, the amateur rocket “Goose 3” launched just as planned and data will be parsed in the coming weeks by the team.

It is also a huge moment for MLS, which is planning both suborbital and orbital launches from Canso in the coming years as regulations from the Canadian government evolve.

“Transport Canada is the regulatory body for launch. They have an existing framework that is in place, that we will utilize going forward on a case-by-case basis while we fold in the newer stuff – and collaborate to flesh it out, and make sure it’s all going to work,” Matier said.

In January this year, the Liberals announced they were prepared to change Canada’s rocket-launching regulations permanently while considering all applications immediately “on a case-by-case basis”, echoing Matier’s language in the interview.

Canada has not launched any rocket to space since about 1998, after a long history of doing atmospheric research – most especially from Churchill, Manitoba. Space is internationally considered to be at 62 miles or 100 km; MLS hopes to reach that milestone very soon. (Note a lower 50 miles or 80 km as the boundary of space is used by some agencies in the U.S.)

MLS has developed its own rocket – few details are available yet, Matier said – but they plan a launch with it in about November 2023 with test CubeSats on board and then a Kármán line (space) targeted launch for the spring of 2024. An orbital launch will follow in Q3 2024.

The early generations of rockets were government-supported, but the industry has of course changed markedly in the last two decades. The rise of SpaceX has brought about numerous other companies interested in launching small satellites affordably and in many cases, in an environmentally friendly way.

Spaceports have sprung up now in locations as far-flung as the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand (where Rocket Lab launches) and in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, just to name a few of a couple of dozen of locations completed or in construction. Canso’s location is ideal for Canada given that rockets leaving there can reach both equatorial and polar realms – and also because Canadian companies may not necessarily need to cross a border to get their payloads into space.

Changing the regulations in the long term will take time, but a consultation process led by the Canadian Space Agency completed in April with a promise of releasing key themes of the responses “in the coming months.”

One of the acknowledged barriers to launches is the number of agencies and departments participating in the process, which lengthens consultation time to ensure proper risk management, but the government has said it’s committing to streamlining things.

MLS has been working closely with numerous government agencies to provide advice, and has also been careful to consult with the local communities around Canso to respect environmental concerns, Indigenous lands and the fishing industry, among other things.

Currently, the CSA cites Transport Canada’s Aeronautics Act as key to allowing commercial launches, with support also required from ISED’s Radiocommunication Act (for transmissions) and Global Affairs Canada’s Remote Sensing Space systems Act (which licenses satellites to ensure international compliancy and the safety of military members.) The CSA acts as a coordinating agency for Government of Canada space programs, which include the defence, trade, environment and Indigenous sectors as well.

But as a first step, the students participating in the debut Canso launch celebrated the milestone. “Today’s accomplishment is the result of an enormous amount of work, research, preparation and commitment, and I am so proud of everyone involved,” Andreas Tryphonopoulos, team lead for Arbalest Rocketry, said in a statement celebrating the launch. “I am confident that there is a very bright future for Canada in the global space industry.”

Not all attendees were able to stay on after the weather delay, but nevertheless a great deal of the local and space community was there. Representatives attended from the Canadian Space Agency, Transport Canada, Nav Canada, from government (local, provincial and federal) and from Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation – along with family and friends of the Arbalest Rocketry team.

Dignitaries also included former Member of Parliament (and Minister of the Department of National Defence) Peter MacKay, former Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Becky Druhan, MLA provincial representative Greg Morrow and CSA director-general Éric Vachon.

One of the other key partnerships for orbital launch at MLS is with Reaction Dynamics, which is a Quebec company developing a rocket with an RE-201/2 hybrid rocket engine. The rocket makes use of liquid and solid propulsion to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Reaction Dynamics’ Aurora rocket, which is under development, is advertised as the first orbital-capable hybrid rocket powered by a patent-pending propulsion system that uses less liquid fuel than other boosters. Precious Payload is also working with Reaction Dynamics to build out rocket manifests to maximize the available slots.

MLS also continues to build out its spaceport, focusing now on ground support – such as Sound Detection and Ranging (SODAR), “a weather observing device that uses sound waves to detect wind speed and direction at various elevations above the ground. sonar and weather equipment” – ahead of its next launch in the fall. The launch rail will undergo some changes and the final piece of road is under construction for the launch pad. Design activities are also underway for an eventual larger facility, Matier said.

Editor’s note: We made an update to the last paragraph correcting SONAR to read SODAR and its use.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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