Rocket operators can now apply to launch to orbit from Canadian soil

rocket flying above earth's atmosphere in an artist's picture, at sunrise
Reaction Dynamics plans to launch missions from Nova Scotia, Canada — to suborbital space at the least. (Image credit: Reaction Dynamics)

OTTAWA — Canada just lifted a big barrier for rocket launches from the nation's soil.

The government has given a green light to request orbital launch licenses in Canada, clearing a spaceport in rural Nova Scotia to not only apply to host its first suborbital mission in 2023, but to strive for a test orbital launch in 2024.

The government announcement (opens in new tab) "signals to the world that Canada is a major player in the commercial space industry," Nova Scotia spaceport manager Maritime Launch Services (MLS) wrote on Twitter (opens in new tab) on Friday (Jan. 20).

The announcement brings Canada closer to claiming a slice of the lucrative global satellite launch business. The plan also gives the nation launching sovereignty for orbital missions for the first time since its first-ever satellite, called Alouette, reached orbit atop an American rocket after lifting off from California on Sept. 21, 1962.

Related: Nova Scotia spaceport project aims to launch clean-tech rockets

MLS has a clear lead in pioneering orbital launches here; its spaceport next to the Atlantic Ocean is the only one under construction in Canada right now. MLS's customers include International Space Station lab manager Nanoracks and Quebec clean-tech rocket provider Reaction Dynamics. 

Besides signing customers, MLS also is working hard to address current government licensing guidelines. The company "has already done a lot of work in anticipation of what we announced," Marc Garneau, a Liberal Member of Parliament, said in French during a livestreamed event Friday at Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters near Montreal that announced the new licensing-application green light. (French translation provided by Space.com.)

Garneau, a former CSA astronaut with three spaceflights under his belt, had said in 2014 that domestic launching is too costly, according to the Ottawa Citizen (opens in new tab). But that was a different era, when commercial space activity was much lower. These days, mobile and small spaceports are popping up in locations like England, continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand to cash in on a rapidly growing industry

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Canada's coastlines, said to be the longest in the world, share many of good attributes for spaceports. They are not only largely rural locations, but Canada's high latitudes also allow for polar launches that are perfect for global Earth observation or military applications. 

Suborbital sounding rockets for atmospheric studies used to fly from Canada regularly from the far north, in a rocket range in Churchill, near Hudson Bay. Black Brant rockets launched 3,500 times from there between the 1950s and 1981, according to archived Canadian Space Agency materials (opens in new tab)

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The last-ever suborbital launch there was 25 years ago by Akjuit Aerospace Inc., which failed to find enough customers to transform Churchill into a commercial facility following the 1998 launch. Other Canadian suborbital sites similarly fell by the wayside, according to data (opens in new tab) from satellite tracker and Harvard Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

The short-term plan to get orbital launches going in Canada, the Liberal government announced (opens in new tab), will involve approving them "on a case-by-case" basis. That process is complicated and will likely require several government departments — and the private civil airspace operator NAV Canada — to sign off before Transport Canada issues a special flight operations certificate (opens in new tab) for a launch. 

International and domestic launches alike will be considered from Canadian soil, but there are no guarantees for approvals, officials emphasized during Friday's press conference when asked whether a country like China could launch from here.

Canada will also work on a more flexible licensing procedure that may finish as soon as 2026, following consultations with industry, Indigenous groups and the public ⁠— and assuming the Liberals win the next Canadian federal election that will likely take place no later than 2025. 

Regulatory approvals are known to take longer than originally envisioned, however. The approval of the orbital Starship launch proposal at SpaceX's Starbase facility in South Texas generated far more public response than expected, for example, delaying completion of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) environmental assessment from December 2021 well into June 2022.

Starship has yet to achieve orbit, perhaps in part because the FAA tasked SpaceX with 75 action items before granting final signoff.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace