Monday, 7 April 2014

Spaceport Vancouver Island?

Space Launch Canada graphic of possible launch trajectories from Vancouver Island.

To date, no satellite has ever been launched from Canadian territory, but for the past few years a group headed by a Vancouver astrophysicist has been trying to change that by promoting the idea of launching satellites from Vancouver Island.

Redouane Al Fakir, the driving force behind Space Launch Canada, first announced his idea in 2010, and he has been seeking financial and other support since then. In March, he told the Alberni Valley News that Space Launch Canada has reached an agreement with the University of Victoria Centre for Aerospace Research to launch three satellites.

It turns out that the negotiations are still going on. We will have to wait to see whether Dr. Fakir can succeed in getting a payloads and the finances he needs to change his hopes into realities. There are still many questions surrounding his scheme,  including what kind of rocket will be used, and where it would come from.

Dr. Fakir told the Alberni Valley Times that the first satellite will be launched from a site outside Canada, but he hopes to launch the second and third satellites from unspecified locations on Vancouver Island. In all likelihood, the rocket will be produced in another country.

In the past, Space Launch Canada has proposed launching from a headland on the west coast of Vancouver Island such as Estevan Point, just west of Strathcona Park. A rocket heading in a southerly direction from there would have thousands of miles of ocean to fly over en route to a polar orbit, much like satellites launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

If this proposal comes to fruition, it would mean a major change of direction for Canadian space efforts, because no satellite has ever been launched from Canadian soil, or on a Canadian rocket.

Canada does have a history in rocketry with the Black Brant series of sounding rockets that are still being made in Winnipeg, and the rocket range in Churchill, Manitoba, that operated from the 1950s to the 1980s, sending scientific payloads to the edge of space for a brief time before they fell back to Earth.

More recently, various private initiatives have arisen to promote Canadian launchers and Canadian launch sites. But up to now, none of these initiatives have met with success.

In 1967, a Canadian government report on space exploration written by a committee headed by John H. Chapman recommended that Canada purchase launch services for our satellites from other countries, but consider building a launcher for small scientific satellites. Since then, Canadian satellites have all flown on foreign-built rockets launched from sites in the United States, Kazakhstan, French Guiana, and India. There is no suggestion that the Canadian government has developed any interest in building Canadian launch vehicles or Canadian launch pads.

The space launch business has been very expensive, competitive, and prone to booms and busts. Canada is not a prime launching location because many satellites, notably communications satellites, are best launched near the equator to get into geostationary orbits. For satellites going into polar orbits, launch sites such as Vancouver Island offer good possibilities.

As mentioned, the U.S. Air Force launches spacecraft into polar orbits from a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on a south-facing portion of the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic Coast in Florida is used to launch spacecraft into orbits closer to the Equator. 

And while Space Launch Canada's proposal is a first for Canada's Pacific Coast, the U.S. military did consider establishing a launch site nearby in Washington state. While researching at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, I came across some air force documents from 1946 suggesting that a "Guided Missiles Test Facility" be established about half way between Cape Flattery at the opening of Juan de Fuca Strait, and Aberdeen on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. 

Satellites were still more than ten years in the future, so there was no talk of launching satellites in those documents, but various flight paths for missiles, including routes along the B.C. coast, were considered. It appears that the proposal met a quick death due to tight budgets in the late 1940s and the superior attributes of the launch site at today's Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

Because the Washington State launch site would have faced west with limited southern exposure, its location would restrict options for launching satellites, a problem the proposed Space Launch Canada launch site doesn't have. 

Despite the possibilities offered by a Vancouver Island launch site, there are already many established launch sites around the world today. So it remains to be seen whether Space Launch Canada's proposal will make economic sense to potential investors and customers.

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