Proposed spaceport would bring defunct N.S. town back to the cutting edge

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CANSO, N.S. – It’s a 400-year-old Nova Scotia fishing village struggling to stay afloat — times have been so tough the town was dissolved five years ago.

Now, tiny Canso is being touted as the future home of Canada’s only commercial spaceport.

Maritime Launch Services Ltd. announced Tuesday that it has committed to establishing a launch complex near Canso.

The Halifax-based company, which is a joint venture of three U.S.-based firms, said it chose Canso after an assessment of 14 potential locations across North America.

Steve Matier, head of spaceport development, said the company met with residents last month, and many joked about the Canso area as a location.

“They described Canso as not at the end of the Earth, but you could see it from there,” said Matier in a telephone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“That’s what you are really looking for. You are looking for a place that has a good buffer from people and an access to a trajectory so that you have a client base that is interested in putting satellites into orbit.”

Matier said the facility would launch medium-sized (3,350 kg) rockets on a due south trajectory. The cost of each launch is targeted at US$45 million.

The venture would also mark Canso’s return to the cutting edge.

In the 1880s, the community was the landing spot for a key subsea communications cable between North America and Europe. The cable was used to transmit news of the Titanic disaster in 1912 and later carried word of the end of the First World War in 1918.

Vernon Pitts, warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, said he’s hoping the project breathes new life into the defunct town, which experienced a devastating downturn in its groundfishing industry roughly two decades ago.

“That pretty much decimated the town and they’ve been struggling ever since. There’s work down there but there’s never enough work and never enough people,” said Pitts of the tiny community, which has been a fishing port since 1604, became an independent town in 1901 and was dissolved into the Guysborough municipality in 2012.

He estimates the town now has perhaps 500 residents — less than half its 2006 population, according to Statistics Canada.

“We’re land rich and people poor. We have lots of land and a prime location and people are really excited about this. We’re certainly hoping that it will continue forward.”

Once completed, the site would be used to launch the Ukrainian-built Cyclone 4M rocket into space. The company said the Ukrainian provider of the rocket, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, has been in operation for 62 years and has built and launched more than 400 spacecraft.

CEO John Isella said the project is solely a commercial venture and no government funding has been requested, mainly due to the relationship with the Ukrainian firm. He said it will cost upwards of $226 million to get the company to the first launch.

“We are leveraging the tremendous heritage that exists in Ukraine in the rocket industry,” Isella said. “So we are not starting from scratch with the design of a rocket or with the design of the launch complex.”

Isella said the company is optimistic it can break ground on its new facility within a year and meet market demands with a first launch in late 2020.

He said the spaceport would consist of a launch pad and a processing building and control centre that would be built about three kilometres away.

In addition to the construction jobs over three years, Isella said between 30 and 50 permanent jobs would be created locally. He said the local economy would also get a spinoff boost, because each launch mission would require up to 100 support staff who would populate the site for about six to eight weeks prior to a launch.

Pitts said the possible benefits are not limited to the local area.

“It’s good for Canso, it’s good for the municipality and it’s good for Nova Scotia. This is unheard for the province of Nova Scotia — launching satellites? I’ve never heard of that before in this province,” said Pitts, adding that members of the community are cautiously optimistic, quoting one resident as calling it a “pipe dream.”

The company is working on getting regulatory approval from the federal and provincial governments.

Matier said that would involve environmental and land use approvals, as well as clearance from NAV Canada and Transport Canada. He said he met last week with the two federal agencies to discuss issues that could arise because the site would be near the main trans-Atlantic air corridor used by thousands of commercial airlines.

“There is optimal times where there is significantly less traffic, so it is a matter of trying to work out what kind of restricted space we’ll need for our launch and when their air traffic is heaviest or lightest,” said Matier.

He said the company would also have to consider the needs of local fishermen, because any launch would need a large amount of open water south of the pad location.

“We certainly can’t be doing that (launching) in the middle of lobster season,” said Matier.

— By Keith Doucette in Halifax

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