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The 2009 Proposal for a Canadian Microsat Launcher & the Rocket Lab Electron Rocket

Posted January 23, 2018 by Chuck Black
          By Chuck Black

According to Arny Sokoloff, the president of Toronto, ON based Contimuum Aerospace, “Continuum Aerospace applauds Rocket Lab’s success but bemoans that we had developed a functionally comparable design for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 2009. It’s a shame that we were unable to secure Canadian funding to realize the plan to develop an all-Canadian small satellite launch vehicle. Rocket  Lab, faced with a similar problem, reincorporated in the United States and were able to fulfill their plan.”

Sokoloff was interviewed earlier this week after Huntington CA and New Zealand based Rocket Lab launched an Electron rocket from its private spaceport in New Zealand. The rocket successfully achieved earth orbit and deployed three micro-satellites.

Back in 2009, both Rocket Lab (then based solely in New Zealand) and Continuum were soliciting funds for the development of a micro-sat rocket launcher.

As outlined in the January 22nd, 2018 post, “The Rocket Lab Electron Rocket Has Placed Three Satellites in Orbit,” Rocket Lab succeeded in its quest. However, and as outlined in the April 22nd, 2016 post, “2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said “Yes!” But CSA Didn’t Move Forward,” the 2009 Canadian plan remains on the shelf.

The Canadian plan focused on creating an environment free of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regulations. ITAR is a United States regulatory regime which restricts and controls the export of defense and military related technologies, according to the “U.S. State Department – Policy – Directorate of Defense Trade Control.

According to the 2009 Continuum proposal:

…it should be recognized that external political risk (adverse exposure to policies
of other countries) in fact provides a major motivation for an indigenous launch vehicle program in the first place. As discussed in Section 1.2, chief among these is the ability of foreign government organizations to limit the availability of launch opportunities and scrutinize the technology embodied in satellite payloads.
 

With respect to components for a Canadian launch program, all potential foreign suppliers have limitations on their technology transfer. The most natural supplier for Canada, being the US, also has the most stringent controls (ITAR) which adds substantial and indeterminate delays in obtaining components and requires sign-off on every shipment. Controls like these suggest that Canada creating a launch vehicle program with key technologies being foreign sourced is pointless, at least from the point of view of assuring non-interference by foreign agencies. 

To mitigate this risk, we have proposed a launch system where all the major components are either Canadian-produced or else COTS (commercial-off the-shelf). With this approach, there is no external point of control where Canada’s satellite program can be obstructed (other than government-to-government pressure, for which no technical solution exists). 

Note that the apparent financial penalty of developing local supply for all non-COTS components is mostly illusory; those components tend to be expensive to import precisely because they are non-COTS products and are typically closely guarded as national and industrial secrets. These non-COTS products are also very customized to the design specifics of a particular launch vehicle — they require custom development anyway; it is our contention that such large expenditures would better be invested in Canada where they can enhance Canadian technological and industrial competitiveness.

So while the US is more than welcome to pass any law which it considers to be in its self interest, other countries are also entitled to do the same.

Canada would be well served by taking this page from the US playbook. If New Zealand and US based companies can build orbital capable rockets, so can Canada.

We could even build one without needing to move to America.

Chuck Black.

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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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