Thursday April 06, 2017

Nova Scotia needs a spaceport

A long exposure photograph shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off (L) from its launch pad and then returning to a landing zone (R) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, December 21, 2015. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based communications company. This long exposure photograph was made by covering the lens in between liftoff and landing. (Mike Brown/Reuters)

A long exposure photograph shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off (L) from its launch pad and then returning to a landing zone (R) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, December 21, 2015. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based communications company. This long exposure photograph was made by covering the lens in between liftoff and landing. (Mike Brown/Reuters)

Listen 8:28

Flying stuff into space is getting cheaper, thanks to new companies getting in to the space-launch business.

And it may get even cheaper still, as company SpaceX recently launched and landed its first reused rocket.

Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic? and UBC Professor of International Relations argues Canada needs a spaceport, and Nova Scotia would be the perfect location.

Parts of Nova Scotia have been identified as good places for potential spaceports in the past, and one Halifax-based company has already applied for approval to build one. But Byers says SpaceX itself could be convinced to come north.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Some people may be familiar with your research on the arctic, why are you now interested in spaceports?

I'm interested in spaceports because space is incredibly important for the arctic. We use satellites to study sea ice in the arctic, to provide search and rescue, to do surveillance of foreign vessels and airplanes. In fact, Canada became the third country in space because of the arctic. We needed to have a satellite to broadcast the CBC to coast to coast to coast, back in the 1960s. We've played that part. Think of the Canadarm and Dextre, both of which are on the International Space Station today, and a lot of optical and other devices that sit on NASA probes that go and study other planets and asteroids. But apart from sending a few astronauts to go up to the ISS or on the space shuttle in a previous generation, we haven't actually taken that final step of having a spaceport ourselves.

Why does the world need a new spaceport?

Well space is becoming really busy. Anywhere in the world, if you count the number of launches per week, we're up to two or three satellite launches into orbit per week right now. Space has become an integral part of our economy. And then last week, the opportunities increased many times over when Elon Musk and SpaceX used a previously flown rocket for the second time, and brought it back so they'll be able to use it three, four, ten, twenty times. And these first stages of Falcon 9 rockets are big. They're nineteen stories high, and they cost as much to make as a jet airliner. Up until now we've just had to throw them away after using them once for two-and-a-half minutes. And now because of SpaceX we'll be able to use them again and again.

spacex on a boat

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster stage rests on the barge on which it has just landed (SpaceX)

And this will reduce the cost of launching satellites into space by somewhere between 60 to 90 percent. And that is going to change the global economy. The thing is this is going to require a lot of launches to do all the stuff, and Musk has an audacious plan to put 4,400 communications satellites into Earth orbit to provide broadband internet to the whole world. And to do that, he and SpaceX are going to need a spaceport, and the south-east coast of Nova Scotia is the best place in the world.

What makes Nova Scotia such a great location?

A couple of reasons. It's at the right latitude to launch into polar orbit, which is where SpaceX wants to get a lot of these satellites. And it has open ocean to the south of it. These satellites are being launched either straight south and straight north, and if something goes wrong you don't want the rocket coming down on a community. You want it coming down in the open ocean. So for safety reasons you need that straight south or straight north. You don't have that at Cape Canaveral, you don't have that in Texas, where SpaceX is building a spaceport for launches into geostationary orbit. If you want to get into polar orbit, the place that SpaceX does it right now is at Vandenberg Airbase in California, and that's an active airbase, and I don't think the US Air Force is going to want Elon Musk launching a rocket every day or two. 

Ocean Satellite

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 (Bill Ingalls/NASA/Associated Press)

Obviously if this goes ahead it would mean jobs for the local economy, but what would it mean for Canada as a whole to have its own spaceport?

It would mean that we'd be adding another dimension to our current involvement in space. We would become more of a complete space power. We would have opportunities that would come from that, people would think of Canada as a place they'd want to go to to work on space technologies. Nova Scotia would have a vibrant new economic centre. The good news about SpaceX and their Falcon 9 rockets is they use non-toxic fuel. There are some rockets that create environmental hazards, these particular rockets don't. And before you ask how much of a carbon footprint does a Falcon rocket have, it's about the same as flying on a Boeing or an Airbus from Vancouver to London. It's not insignificant, but we're launching satellites into space that fulfil very important needs for people here on Earth and these satellites drives the economy. It's not just someone going on vacation, it's a central part of what we'll be doing globally in the next century or five.

What are you recommending? How do we go about getting this spaceport process started?

We have an incredible advantage because a spaceport is infrastructure. And the federal minister in charge of infrastructure is the Transport Minister, and he just happens to be Marc Garneau. And Marc Garneau has been to space three times. He's also been the head of the Canadian Space Agency. And this is important, because Elon Musk will either know Marc Garneau or know of him. He will answer the phone call and they can have an informed conversation about what's involved. What are the parameters here. What does SpaceX need. What can SpaceX do for Canada. We couldn't imagine a better ambassador to negotiate a deal with the world's most dynamic, hard-nosed entrepreneur Elon Musk. And the Trudeau government is all about innovation, about taking Canada into the next century, to be a leader technologically. What better way to do that than climb aboard the space revolution with Elon Musk?