Orbital Dreams: New Launch Site in Hand for Private Spaceflight Firm

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. (Image credit: PlanetSpace.)

AU.S.-Canadian venture to develop suborbitaland orbitalrocket ships has found a new launch site along the Atlantic coastline ofNova Scotia.

The London,Ontario, Canada-based firm PlanetSpacehas secured a team agreement for 300 acres of land along the edgeof Cape Breton in Nova Scotia - a province of Canada - for orbital spaceshots by its SilverDart spacecraft in 2009.

"I thinkwhat's exciting is it brings a private spaceflight program to Canada," said ChirinjeevKathuria, PlanetSpace chairman and a Chicago-based entrepreneur. "TheCanadian government is very excited."

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

"Ourinitial meeting was because of a good geographic location for this type offacility," said Mark James, the defense and space business developmentexecutive for Nova Scotia Business, Inc. - an economic development branch forthe province. "Once we kind of peeked under the hood and saw that these guysreally did have solid technology and a good solid understanding of thecommercialization of space, we made a decision that this was a company we'dlike to work with."

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

On Friday,NASA announcedits selection of two U.S.-firms - El Segundo, California's SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based RocketplaneKistler - for its $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation System(COTS) demonstration program. After an initial demonstration round, the agencyplans to hold a second open competition - accessible to PlanetSpace and anyother interested contenders - to deliver cargo and crew launch services to theISS.

"One of thethings 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 saidthe next major steps for Nova Scotia and PlanetSpace are to pick exactly which300 acres on Cape Breton's coastline will be the most optimum site for theplanned launch site, and meet with province and federal agencies to discuss anyenvironmental studies and evaluations from Transport Canada, the Canadiantransportation regulation agency, that may be required, he said.

Oneorbital site, two vehicles

PlanetSpacecurrently has two distinct spacecraft programs underway - each drawing on provenflight technology - to launch paying customers or payloads into space.

In late2005, PlanetSpace announcedplans for an orbital, eight-person spacecraft dubbed Silver Dart.

Designscall for a lifting body vehicle, based on the U.S. Air Force's Flight DynamicsLaboratory-7 (FDL-7) program, to launch atop a clusterof rocket engines, withstand hypersonic glide speeds, and return to Earthvia a runway landing.

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

"He flew itabout 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 yearslater not only in the air but into space."

Sheerinadded that his firm's suborbital booster - the CanadianArrow - is a critical component of the Silver Dart vehicle.

"TheCanadian Arrow vehicle is technically going to be the third stage," Sheerinsaid.

The CanadianArrow rocket is a carry-over from Sheerin's entry in the $10million Ansari X Prize competition. It draws on legacy, GermanV2 booster designs as the core of a capsule-based spacecraft to launchthree people into suborbital space. The rocket's main engine offers 50,000pounds of thrust which, when clustered, would provide a good push into space.

"That50,000-pound thrust engine, that's our ticket to the party," Sheerin said.

CanadianArrow plans

WhilePlanetSpace pushes forward with its Silver Dart project, the firm is alsodeciding whether to continue planned engine tests and a full-scale CanadianArrow hold down test at a previously chosen launch site.

In June2006, PlanetSpace chosethe Canadian Forces Meaford Range and Testing Area for engine tests, escapesystem shakedowns and the first suborbital flights of the Canadian Arrowrocket. The military base is located near Cape Rich and the coast of GeorgianBay.

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

Kathuria andSheerin said PlanetSpace is targeting initial Canadian Arrow flights in 2008.The spacecraft is designed to be launched from a floating barge, such as LakeOntario, with the crewed capsule parachuting back to Earth for a watersplashdown.

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

"We'relooking at one of the other Midwestern states to launch suborbital flightsfrom," Kathuria said.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.