With the launch this week of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the discussion in the media about Canada’s lack of launch capability, we thought we would publish a couple of articles from the Space Quarterly print magazine archives that have never been published online. The first was published in June 2012 and is written by Canadian journalist and historian Chris Gainor.
Searching for the Elusive Canadian Launch Vehicle
Canada’s history with launch vehicles goes back to the late 1950s, when the Canadian Forces began two launcher programs at the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment at Valcartier, Quebec.
At the time a team of Department of National Defence (DND) engineers developed sounding rockets that became known as Black Brant, and another DND group was developing large cannons that could loft projectiles long distances.
Within a few years, the DND was out of the space business, and Canada had chosen not to build a satellite launch vehicle.
But now, more than fifty years later, the DND is in the process of returning to space with satellites such as Sapphire, and it has provided support to a technology development program that could lead to Canada’s first satellite launcher.
Today’s hopes for a launch vehicle made in Canada and launched from Canadian territory will have to overcome not only today’s harsh fiscal environment but also decades of shying away from launch technologies.
Canada’s original rocket program was moved from Valcartier to Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg in 1960, and Black Brant rockets remain in use today as sounding rockets. But those rockets usually are launched outside their home country because Canada’s sounding rocket launching range near Churchill, Manitoba, was closed down in the 1980s due to budget cuts after thirty years of operation.
DND’s early cannon work was spearheaded by brilliant engineer Gerald Bull, who moved his work in the 1960s to McGill University in Montreal. The Canadian government funded Bull’s High Altitude Research Program (HARP) from 1964 to 1967.
Although Bull hoped to use cannons to send payloads into orbit, he was confined to military artillery research for foreign clients after the Canadian government pulled out of HARP in 1967. Ultimately, Bull died in a still unsolved murder in 1990 while working for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
When Canada’s first satellite Alouette 1 was launched in 1962, it sat atop an American Thor-Agena launch vehicle, and since then, every Canadian satellite has flown on launch vehicles built and launched elsewhere.
The Chapman Report, widely promoted as the blueprint of Canada’s space program, recommended in 1967 that Canada launch its communications satellites on foreign launch vehicles. But the report also suggested that Canada could launch its own 45 kg scientific satellites into orbit using either a HARP cannon, a launch vehicle made from clustered Black Brants, or an American Scout solid-fuelled rocket.
The Canadian government chose to get out of building scientific satellites at the time, so the idea went nowhere. Twenty years later, a Parliamentary Committee looking into Canada’s space program noted that Bristol Aerospace was ready to study building a Canadian satellite launch vehicle, but the committee decided that such a rocket was not affordable.
That remains the policy today, especially given the recent budget cutbacks affecting the Canadian Space Agency and other government programs.
In a February speech in Vancouver, Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean had this to say about Canadian launch vehicles: “We don’t have the resources to do it on our own. If we spent all the money we’re spending in Canada in space right now, which is over a billion dollars per year, this is not enough to have an indigenous launch capability.”
Although Canada’s space program has its origins with research conducted for the Department of National Defence, civilian priorities and agencies dominated Canadian space efforts from the late 1960s until the 2000s. Now Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the research agency of DND, is working with contractors on technologies that could be used for a Canadian-built and based launch vehicles for small satellites.
For the past five years, DRDC has been funding research under the Defence Industrial Research Program for a hybrid rocket engine being undertaken by Cesaroni Technology Incorporated, whose Canadian office is located just north of Toronto.
Cesaroni has been developing and testing a rocket engine known as a Staged Propulsion Aft-Inject Hybrid (SCAIH) motor, a variation on a hybrid rocket where liquid oxygen is mixed with a solid rocket fuel to produce thrust.
“The concept of the SCAIH motor is not new,” said Bryan Pilon, an aerospace engineer with Cesaroni. “This idea has been around for 25 years or so.”
The concept was examined by NASA in the 1990s as part of its Hybrid Propulsion Technology Program as a potential replacement for the solid rocket motors used in the space shuttle program, he said.
Solid-liquid hybrid rocket engines have not been widely used in the past because of problems such as non-uniform burning and residual fuel left over after burnout, and other problems adding to the weight of the rocket.
The SCAIH system uses a fuel-rich solid propellant that when combined with liquid oxygen provides greater efficiency and less wasted fuel than in a classical hybrid rocket motor, Pilon told Space Quarterly in an interview. The nozzle and combustion chambers of SCAIH motors also can be pivoted, allowing thrust vector control of the rocket vehicle, he added.
In the first of two study programs funded by DRDC, Cesaroni ran five test firings of a SCAIH engine, and further tests on a second grant where the motor’s performance “checked out better than we expected,” Pilon said.
“We have a motor that has been shown to operate properly. And this was made in Canada in less than five years.”
Another advantage of hybrid motors like SCAIH is that they are less complex than liquid rocket motors that require turbo-pumps to operate, he said. SCAIH motors are most advantageous for smaller launch vehicles designed to put payloads of between 100 and 1000 kg into low Earth orbit.
Cesaroni has run a trajectory simulation for a three-stage rocket using SCAIH motors placing a 100-kg payload into a circular orbit 700 km high out of the former launch site at Churchill, Manitoba.
Further work involved the development of an optimum solid fuel for the SCAIH motor, followed by test firings of a subscale SCAIH motor using off-the-shelf components wherever possible. The twelve engine firings tested different firing setups for periods of up to 90 seconds.
If DND or another Canadian government agency wanted to move ahead on a launch vehicle using this technology, larger space industry players such as Bristol Aerospace, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., and COM DEV International, would also be involved. These contractors might be interested in using such a vehicle to launch their own payloads.
CSA president MacLean witnessed one of the tests of the SCAIH motor, although at present CSA is not involved in the program, Pilon said.
The size of rocket that was contemplated in Cesaroni’s trajectory study would fit in with other defence-related satellite programs in Canada.
DRDC is currently partnering with CSA in the 74-kg NEOSSat, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, which is due to be placed this year in a sun-synchronous orbit 785 km high. DND has also arranged to launch Canada’s first military applications satellite, Sapphire, into a similar orbit. Used for space surveillance, Sapphire will weigh twice as much as NEOSSat, at 150 kg.
The future of the proposed SCAIH rocket is in the hands of DND, which must decide whether it wants the capability to launch its own satellites from Canadian territory, and whether it has the money to do so.
DND has sustained major cutbacks in the federal budget tabled in March, and so any decision by DND to proceed with launcher technology will send a strong signal that it is placing a high priority and having independent Canadian access to space. But aside from its support for the SCAIH tests, there is little indication that DND is moving in that direction.
Editor’s note: Cesaroni shut down its Canadian rocket motor program due to lack of government interest.
Contributed by: Chris Gainor is a Ph.D. historian and author specializing in space flight and aeronautics. He has written four books, including Arrows, to the Moon, Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race, and To a Distant Sun: The Rocket Pioneers, and numerous articles in journals, newspapers and magazines.