Canada ready for lift-off, once again

Elizabeth Howell
February 8, 2023

After a 25-year hiatus, Canada will soon allow space launches from our own territory.

Rocket operators were told Jan. 21 they can apply to the Government of Canada for permission to operate launches to space “on a case-by-case basis”, under regulations that should be streamlined further in 2026.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Canada did have space-launching capabilities. Most were done by the government, on pads scattered across the country, most prominently at the launching area in Churchill, Manitoba, where Black Bart rockets conducted studies of the upper atmosphere.

The last known launch from our country, by the now-defunct private start-up Akjuit Aerospace Inc., took place in 1998, according to records by Harvard-Smithsonian professor and space launch tracker Jonathan McDowell.

Since then, the space sector has become fundamentally different, not to mention cheaper. Rocket parts can be 3D-printed, rocket stages can be landed and reused, and satellites are breadbox-sized or smaller. It is now much more practical for companies to profitably launch small satellites for Earth observation, communications, and more.

Though Canadian businesses are eager to join a fast-growing international market, they also are looking for more clarity on what regulations would look like.

“We’re going to keep talking to government and the ministers, about the framework that they’re going be putting in place,” said Mike Mueller, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada that represents dozens of companies in areas like space systems, avionics, and aircraft manufacturing.

Regulations surrounding space are complex, he explained to Research Money, and regulators are plentiful. Rocket operators would likely need approval from entities like Transport Canada, private aerospace operator NAV Canada, Fisheries and Oceans for ocean-side launches, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, for launches in the north or near Indigenous reserves — to name just a few.

Mueller said the key is for industry to have “timeliness”, especially with a major spaceport preparing to start operations in the coastal setting of Canso, Nova Scotia. Operated by Maritime Launch Services, this site’s first suborbital test flight might come as soon as this year.

Mueller also asked for predictability in procurements, along with priority areas for government, so that industry can plan ahead to deal with the significant expense and complexity of space work.

A predictable pain point for Canadian industry is dealing with the government’s stated strategy for this sector. In 2019, Canada released a top-level document called “Exploration, Imagination, Innovation“ outlining priority areas like mentorship, supporting commercial space entities, increasing use of space-based data, and lunar exploration. While each of these areas can be supported by rocket launches, the word “rocket” does not come up once in the 22-page document. People who handle rockets for a living, want more details.

Similarly, Canada currently lacks a National Space Council comparable to that of the United States. Americans deem this body to be so important, the Vice-President chairs it. Canada did have a Space Advisory Board, made up of various stakeholders, including industry representatives. However, its mandate expired in 2020, and there has been nothing announced about a successor organization.

“Having a National Space Council will help government collaborate internally … [and] we also think that will also facilitate the collaboration with other key stakeholders that are external to government,” said Brian Gallant, CEO of Space Canada.

The organization, founded in 2022, seeks to represent thousands of individuals in space innovation and related industries. It has nine founding members, including industry heavyweights, like Canadarm operator MDA and satellite operator, Telesat.

Launch, Gallant said, would be a “perfect example” of allowing a space council to define the needs of Canada’s space industry, and how to meet them. This could include basic operating principles, such as environmentally acceptable approaches for fuels, processes, and land use — much of which is already being hammered out by Maritime Launch Services. In this way, the rocket industry could align its activities with challenges facing the economy, society, or even the planet, such as global warming.

Gallant added that Space Canada is supportive of the government’s regulations for the time being. But he called on government departments to “really work holistically together”, so the industry’s needs are part of developing the longer-term rocket regulation framework in 2026.

There will be a public consultation process, including an opportunity for industry, Indigenous populations, and ordinary folks to discuss what should be considered in creating the 2026 regulations. Timing of that process has not been announced yet, but it should be relatively soon.


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