Groundbreaking firsts rarely go off without some surprises, especially in the space sector. One example was Launch Canada’s very first Launch Canada Challenge.
Teams of students came together at the Stardust Festival in Cochrane Ontario from August 1st to August 6th to launch rockets and to compete in three different categories, as well as for a Grand Prize for the best team. One of those launches made Canadian history as the first experimental amateur launch in Canada.
The biggest surprise about the competition, however, was that the surprises almost all turned out to be welcome ones. Instead of a competition, it became more of a collaboration, as we learned in a conversation with Launch Canada founder/president Adam Trumpour.
“Colossal success” featuring collaborative attitude
Trumpour saw it as a “colossal success.” Not only was he happy with the turnout, saying that they had both a lot of “VIPs” and a large number of student groups from across the country, but it was successful in terms of launches. In what he described as a “solid performance,” almost all the teams were able to launch their rockets, including most of the teams in both the “beginner” and “advanced” categories. All but one of the teams in the “beginner” category—the ones using off-the-shelf parts assembled by the student teams—were able to launch.
A few teams had issues with their launches. The Beginner-class team from Queen’s University and the advanced team from UBC. UBC had a two-stage rocket, which launched successfully but had some issues in flight which prevented the second stage from firing, and the Queens’ team had some telemetry issues that prevented launch. The other teams, including the University of Toronto’s advanced hybrid engine launch, were able to get off the ground.
To a great extent, Trumpour credited that to a novel and welcome aspect of the competition: the very real collaboration and camaraderie between the teams. The teams helped each other as much as they competed in “a million little ways,” often lending not just insight and manpower, but actual equipment to each other as necessary. Trumpour said that teams would actually lend each other the use of their antennas and ground stations, so as to help their ersatz competitors successfully launch. He described it as a very different atmosphere than you often see in the big American competitions like the Spaceport America Cup.
It’s partially due to Canadian rocketry reflecting Canadian personalities and culture, but also that it is a “close-knit community where everybody has a stake in trying to create opportunities to see it happen.”
Historic Canadian launch
It was a historic week for Canadian rocket launches as well. In SpaceQ’s story on the lead up to the competition, Trumpour described all the work that Launch Canada and Transport Canada had done to sort out the regulatory issues that would let these launches happen. Their efforts finally bore fruit, as the Launch Canada Challenge was “the first time we’ve ever had an experimental amateur rocket launch authorized in Canada.”
Transport Canada had “never actually authorized something like this,” but the Government of Canada had shown support, sending an inspector from Transport Canada and representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources who were on hand to work with Launch Canada on their potentially-challenging launch in a clearing located within an Ontario forest. He said that “they were ultimately quite satisfied that we were following well-established standards,” as well as “creating our own to fill the gaps where they didn’t.”
Trumpour said that safety and environmental impact were big considerations for the event. Since they were launching in Ontario woodlands, and not a desert like in the Spaceport America Cup, they needed to be aware of the issues of fire, toxins, and even lost rockets and how they can affect the environment in the area. That was part of what made the search for their launch site so involved, but it also guided how they approached the event.
Launch Canada forbade the use of toxic rocket propellants like hydrazine or tetroxide, for example. In fact, the only team that wasn’t using industry-standard solid rocket propellants was the University of Toronto, who were using a hybrid rocket that used a mixture of liquid nitrous oxide and paraffin—”basically candle wax.” It was their launch that made history as the first experimental amateur rocket launch in Canada.
They also took fire and rocket retrieval seriously. There was fire fighting equipment on hand at the site, and every rocket was fitted with a GPS tracker so that they could be found and retrieved afterwards. Trumpour said that another surprise he discovered was that “the teams enjoyed the whole experience of [tracking and retrieving the rockets]…almost all of them described it as a cool and unique experience. It was pleasantly surprising how well that worked out.” Only one rocket is left to find, and the search is ongoing.
Trumpour also said that their experience with Stardust went well, and that their help finding the site and their other collaborative efforts made them “a fantastic partner.” The first day of the competition took place at the main Stardust arena in Cochrane, and they saw an “impressive” roster of speakers: people from Maritime Launch Services, SpaceRyde, Reaction Dynamics, MDA, C6 Launch Systems, and several other space launch organizations spoke there—including a number of former astronauts. For his part, Stardust Technology’s Jason Michaud told CTV News that “there’s literally people from Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States and other places, joining us here…we are so thrilled by what we are doing this week.”
The most striking moment was when they were sent a message of greetings and well-wishes from MLS’ partners in Ukraine, Yuzhnoya. Trumpour noted that considering the situation in Ukraine, it was touching that they took the time to speak to these students.
Negotiations are ongoing, but considering their success, Trumpour believes it’s very likely that they will be collaborating with Stardust next year as well.
In the end, who won? Winning the competition depended on more than just launch height, but on the “overall quality of the vehicle,” its “performance in flight” and the quality of their other deliverables like reports. The winners in the beginner category were the École de technologie supérieure (ETS), the University of Victoria and York University in order. ETS also won the grand prize, owing to how “their flight was beautiful, fully nominal flight and recovery, and they came into the competition incredibly well prepared.”
The advanced launch challenge was won by the University of Toronto, unsurprisingly, considering their groundbreaking hybrid rocket launch, with UBC getting runner-up for their two-stage rocket design. The subsystem challenge was the one down note, with no winners this year—Queen’s rocket was supposed to demonstrate their subsystem but didn’t get to launch—but Trumpour is confident that there will be more candidates and a solid winner during the next Challenge.