The federal government has announced it is ready to approve commercial space launches on Canadian soil on an interim basis as it moves to put regulations in place to support a nascent domestic launch industry.
The vote of confidence from Ottawa comes amid a growing global demand for access to space. Telecommunications providers around the world are racing to offer universal access to mobile broadband internet access via satellite while space-based monitoring for greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural productivity and national security, among other uses, is only expected to grow.
“We are seeing a great deal of private sector leadership supporting space-related projects and our government wants to encourage and welcome that kind of private sector investment and innovation here at home,” said federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra during a news briefing on Friday at the Canadian Space Agency’s headquarters in Longueuil, Que.
Transport Canada has jurisdiction over rocket launches inside the country’s borders.
The announcement is a win for the industry and follows years of discussions between Ottawa and proponents looking to establish Canadian spaceports for commercial clients.
Mr. Alghabra said that, for the first time, his department will consider requests from private companies to launch satellites from Canada on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, the government will work toward establishing a regulatory framework for aspiring launch companies, which includes meeting safety and other technical requirements.
Despite Canada’s six-decade history of utilizing space for a wide range of applications, the absence of a domestic launch facility remains a gaping hole in the country’s space sector. For years there was little expectation within the industry of this changing. But recent advances in satellite technology have led to smaller spacecraft which are typically launched together in large batches.
This has opened the door to a future in which tens of thousands of working satellites are flying overhead for communications and space-borne monitoring. The limited availability of launch facilities worldwide creates an opportunity for Canada, both for domestic spacecraft and international customers.
Canada has additional advantages because of its long coastlines and sparse population relative to its size. For safety reasons, most rocket launches take place over the ocean or over land areas that are far from major cities. Because of Canada’s northerly location, it is relatively easier for satellites launched from there to access the north-to-south orbits that best suited for global coverage.
Several companies have already declared their interest in offer launch services from Canada. Among them, the furthest ahead is Halifax-based Maritime Launch Services, which has been working since 2016 on establishing the country’s first commercial launch site.
Last summer, the company secured permits and the lease of 335 acres of Crown land to build a launch pad and related infrastructure at a site near Canso, N.S.
Steve Matier, the company’s chief executive officer, said construction of a roadway to the site is now well under way. He said the facility could be available and ready to host an initial suborbital demonstration launch as early as the end of this year with a small Canadian-built rocket.
By 2025, the company aims to be sending up medium-class rockets with payloads in the range of five tonnes – a threshold that Mr. Matier said is needed to meet market demand and achieve profitability. The company already has a continuing partnership with a Ukraine-based rocket maker to provide those rockets and Mr. Matier said work is proceeding despite the war in that country.
He said Transport Canada’s willingness to consider launches in the near term while developing regulations for the industry going forward sends a crucial message.
“It’s the fact that it’s publicly stated ... that’s what’s so important,” Mr. Matier said. “This is really a key step in continuing all the momentum we’ve built up over the last year.”
The company has also been working in the community and with First Nations groups to build support for its plans. Nevertheless, some residents oppose the launch site, a possible harbinger of future public concern as launches become a frequent occurrence.
Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency, said that the development of effective regulations will ensure the industry grows in a way that minimizes negative impacts on people and the environment while offering Canadians a source of pride in achieving the ability to launch its own spacecraft.
Such a development would increase the country’s access to space for a wide range of applications, including science, Ms. Campbell said. Over the past five years, the agency has been providing funds to several Canadian companies in the early stages of developing their launch capabilities through its Space Technology Development Program.
“These are companies who’ve decided it’s a viable business,” said Ms. Campbell.
Ottawa’s official stamp of approval may also help draw in international companies who are looking to increase their overall launch capacity.
Mike Mueller, who heads the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, welcomed Friday’s announcement, which he said would boost the industry directly as well as provide indirect opportunities and jobs for a broader range of companies that support the aerospace sector.
“This is a sector poised to increase exponentially,” Mr. Mueller said.