Space Agency eyes Cape Breton and Fort Churchill for rocket launches

By Peter Rakobowchuk
The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Cape Breton may become a Canadian version of Florida's historic Cape Canaveral where astronauts and rockets have been launched into outer space for decades.

The Canadian Space Agency is looking at the Nova Scotia island as one of two possible sites to blast small satellites into orbit using an indigenous rocket launch system.

The other possible micro-satellite launch site is Fort Churchill in Manitoba, near Hudson Bay, where hundreds of small research rockets have been launched in the past.

An official with the Manitoba government says the province is keen on the idea.

"We have not been approached by anyone about a possible rocket launching site in Churchill, but we would be open to discussing the possibility," cabinet press secretary Rachel Morgan said in an email.

Eric Dubuc, a CSA engineer, says pre-feasibility studies were done in 2008 and the first indication is it would be possible for Canada to launch its own rockets.

"It would be feasible, but extremely challenging," he told The Canadian Press.

"During the first two feasibility studies we had to look at launch sites because they have a direct effect on the sizing of the vehicle, its performance and where you can go with the vehicle," he said.

Dubuc noted that Canada has a "legacy of technology" with the Black Brant, a sounding rocket developed by Winnipeg-based Bristol Aerospace and launched from Fort Churchill.

On its website, the CSA notes that over the years, more than 3,500 suborbital flights have been launched from the site.

During the 1950s, close to 4,500 people — mostly military personnel and Canadian and U.S. research scientists — lived and worked in Fort Churchill.

In October 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the community and announced a 10-year multimillion-dollar plan with Manitoba to improve the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay rail line leading to it. To date, more than $17 million has been spent on improvements.

Dubuc said a geographic location in the East — "something along the lines of Cape Breton" — has also been looked at.

He also added that different scenarios have been considered, including the possibility of having the rocket moved around from site to site on a mobile system.

The idea of using small rockets to monitor Arctic sovereignty has also been discussed informally.

"The size of the launcher we're looking at is not around," Dubuc said. "It's not really offered right now by the Americans or the Europeans."

NASA and the European Space Agency both launch satellites for other countries and Dubuc said all options are being looked at.

"Maybe in some cases it would make more sense to launch with the Americans," he said. "In some instances it might make more sense to launch ourselves."

A Cape Breton location also has the support of a Canadian-American consortium which announced its own plans several years ago to develop a launch pad for space tourism.

Geoff Sheerin, an official with Chicago-based PlanetSpace, said in an email "the Canadian Maritimes are an excellent place to launch rockets."

But, citing legal reasons, he would not elaborate on the current status of his own company's project.

PlanetSpace is looking at setting up its space port north of Sydney Mines and has held discussions with Nova Scotia Business Inc., a provincial business development agency.

But the CSA's Dubuc cautions that Canada won't be launching its own rockets any time soon.

"Usually these programs take between five and 10 years," he noted.

28 March 2010 — Return to cover.