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Nova Scotia spaceport project aims to launch clean-tech rockets

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

Spaceport America is getting a Canadian competitor.

A private Canadian rocket facility aims to send clean-tech rocket missions to space as soon as 2023, adding more competition for Spaceport America. (The New Mexico-based private facility is famed for sending Virgin Galactic tourists to space, as well as launching research experiments.)

Construction on Canada's Spaceport Nova Scotia, near the Atlantic Ocean, was approved (opens in new tab) Monday (Aug. 29) at a moment when the private space industry is rapidly building up spaceports around the world.

Related: Spaceport construction set to begin on UK's northernmost island

Canada's new facility — managed by Maritime Launch Services — joins private rocket facilities in Cornwall (U.K.), Scotland, Australia and New Zealand, all looking to cash in on a rapidly growing industry. Launches worldwide had a $9.25 billion value in 2020 (opens in new tab), up 14% from the year before, according to a 2021 Space Foundation report.

Today's rockets can send small satellites to space by the dozen, and companies like SpaceX, Firefly Aerospace, Relativity Space and Rocket Lab are some of the main players vying to bring cubesats, nanosats and scientific experiments into space.

Related: SpaceX's Starlink megaconstellation launches in photos

How much of a slice Nova Scotia will take out of the commercial spaceport market remains to be seen, however. Maritime Launch says they are banking on space companies worldwide that will "choose to establish a corporate presence" near the remote town of Canso, alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

Canso is 3.5 hours' drive from Halifax when it isn't slippery or snowing, which would be the case for half the year at least. That said, Halifax's municipal population of less than 500,000 is roughly equivalent to space hubs in Albuquerque (within driving distance of New Mexico's Spaceport America), Colorado Springs, and Cornwall.

It's also not clear how viable the spaceport business is more generally, as some of these facilities remain essentially startup zones even many years into their operation, particularly in the case of Spaceport America. 

Spaceport America's anchor customer, Virgin Galactic, has been offline for 13 months due to SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and carrier upgrades. Suborbital flights of  space tourists may begin by spring 2023 if the company's plans come to fruition, however.

Related: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity 22 launch with Richard Branson. See video and photos of the flight

Maritime Launch's early ambitions reach only as high as suborbital space. Its debut mission in 2023 will be using a small launcher from a Quebec startup, Reaction Dynamics. 

The companies signed a letter of intent (opens in new tab) earlier this year to send more small rockets aloft, if the first launch goes to plan. The collaborators may upgrade the rockets to medium-class when Reaction Dynamics is ready to move forward on a business plan to launch satellite megaconstellations to orbit.

Reaction Dynamics, though untested in spaceflight, is trying to stand apart from the competition with clean-technology rockets, using a liquid oxidizer and a polymer-based solid fuel. Its rocket engine is partway through testing, according to its website.

The company says it has made a performance breakthrough in hybrid rocket engines, which use a combination of solid and liquid propellant to boost payloads aloft. 

Reaction Dynamics' version, officials say, creates 60% less carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) than the competition. The company may also use recycled plastic (opens in new tab) in the fuel, a spokesperson told Montreal's Polytechnique college in 2021.

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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. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.