Orbital Dreams: New Launch Site in Hand for Private Spaceflight Firm
A PlanetSpace rocket launches spaceward from Canada's Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in this illustration.
Credit: PlanetSpace.

A U.S.-Canadian venture to develop suborbital and orbital rocket ships has found a new launch site along the Atlantic coastline of Nova Scotia.

The London, Ontario, Canada-based firm PlanetSpace has secured a team agreement for 300 acres of land along the edge of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia - a province of Canada - for orbital space shots by its Silver Dart spacecraft in 2009.

"I think what's exciting is it brings a private spaceflight program to Canada," said Chirinjeev Kathuria, PlanetSpace chairman and a Chicago-based entrepreneur. "The Canadian government is very excited."

Nova Scotia officials said the launch site agreement stemmed from months of discussions, meetings and informational sessions with PlanetSpace and its backers.

"Our initial meeting was because of a good geographic location for this type of facility," said Mark James, the defense and space business development executive for Nova Scotia Business, Inc. - an economic development branch for the province. "Once we kind of peeked under the hood and saw that these guys really did have solid technology and a good solid understanding of the commercialization of space, we made a decision that this was a company we'd like to work with."

Geoff Sheerin, PlanetSpace CEO and president, said Nova Scotia's Cape Breton is a prime starting ground for orbital space shots. Not only does the site allow rockets to shed stages into the Atlantic Ocean - rather than a populated landmass - during liftoff, but also allows launch trajectories to reach the International Space Station (ISS), he added.

On Friday, NASA announced its selection of two U.S.-firms - El Segundo, California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler - for its $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) demonstration program. After an initial demonstration round, the agency plans to hold a second open competition - accessible to PlanetSpace and any other interested contenders - to deliver cargo and crew launch services to the ISS.

"One of the things that COTS does for us...[is allow] a bit of a refocus," Sheerin told SPACE.com. "We've actually already developed a bit of our COTS system."

James said the next major steps for Nova Scotia and PlanetSpace are to pick exactly which 300 acres on Cape Breton's coastline will be the most optimum site for the planned launch site, and meet with province and federal agencies to discuss any environmental studies and evaluations from Transport Canada, the Canadian transportation regulation agency, that may be required, he said.

One orbital site, two vehicles

PlanetSpace currently has two distinct spacecraft programs underway - each drawing on proven flight technology - to launch paying customers or payloads into space.

In late 2005, PlanetSpace announced plans for an orbital, eight-person spacecraft dubbed Silver Dart.

Designs call for a lifting body vehicle, based on the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 (FDL-7) program, to launch atop a cluster of rocket engines, withstand hypersonic glide speeds, and return to Earth via a runway landing.

It is the Silver Dart that would rely on the Cape Breton spaceport, which happens to be located near the site of the first flight of a Silver Dart vehicle. That aircraft, designed and built in part by telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell, made Canada's first heavier-than-air flight near Cape Breton in 1909, Sheerin said.

"He flew it about 60 miles from where we're planning to launch our rocket," Sheerin said. "We want to fly in 2009 into orbit. So the Silver Dart will fly again 100 years later not only in the air but into space."

Sheerin added that his firm's suborbital booster - the Canadian Arrow - is a critical component of the Silver Dart vehicle.

"The Canadian Arrow vehicle is technically going to be the third stage," Sheerin said.

The Canadian Arrow rocket is a carry-over from Sheerin's entry in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition. It draws on legacy, German V2 booster designs as the core of a capsule-based spacecraft to launch three people into suborbital space. The rocket's main engine offers 50,000 pounds of thrust which, when clustered, would provide a good push into space.

"That 50,000-pound thrust engine, that's our ticket to the party," Sheerin said.

Canadian Arrow plans

While PlanetSpace pushes forward with its Silver Dart project, the firm is also deciding whether to continue planned engine tests and a full-scale Canadian Arrow hold down test at a previously chosen launch site.

In June 2006, PlanetSpace chose the Canadian Forces Meaford Range and Testing Area for engine tests, escape system shakedowns and the first suborbital flights of the Canadian Arrow rocket. The military base is located near Cape Rich and the coast of Georgian Bay.

"It's possible that we can move those also to the Nova Scotia facility, if required," Sheerin said.

Kathuria and Sheerin said PlanetSpace is targeting initial Canadian Arrow flights in 2008. The spacecraft is designed to be launched from a floating barge, such as Lake Ontario, with the crewed capsule parachuting back to Earth for a water splashdown.

But despite its name, the Canadian Arrow may not fly from its native country alone.  

"We're looking at one of the other Midwestern states to launch suborbital flights from," Kathuria said.