Sometime over the next few months, the top two municipal officials with the District of Guysborough will travel to Vandenburg Air Force base in California to watch a rocket launch.
Municipal council voted to pay for a fact-finding trip — which includes an equally important visit to rocket fuel company United Paradyne — by CAO Barry Carroll and Development Director Gordon MacDonald (who, at this writing, are waiting for their military clearance).
Until a couple of years ago, no one would have put “rocket launch” and “District of Guysborough” in the same sentence. But within the next two weeks, a joint venture between United Paradyne and a manufacturer of rocket engines in Ukraine (Yuzhmash) will file its environmental assessment report with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. The joint venture, known as Maritime Launch Services (MLS), is seeking approval to build a $130 million launch facility a few kilometres from the community of Canso and 1,500 meters from the Atlantic Ocean.
“The plan is to take in their full operations: the assembly of the rocket, its transportation, the footprint of the site,” says CAO Barry Carroll. “We are going to see the process that will be happening in our municipality once the facility is built. We will hopefully see a rocket head up to the sky, but it’s really all about the other things associated with the operation in the weeks leading up to the launch.”
The satellite launching business is literally exploding (no pun intended) because of satellites’ role in everything from global telecommunications to relaying images of shrinking polar ice caps and other scientific information needed for adaptation to climate change.
United Paradyne supplies rocket fuels for private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Orbital ATK, which launch rockets carrying satellites into space for both private companies and NASA.
The proposed site in Nova Scotia requires a long-term lease of 20 acres of Crown land, and if approved, would become the first spaceport in Canada. Here’s a link to the MLS project description.
At this point, public money is neither involved nor being requested to establish, finance, or operate Maritime Launch Services, according to MLS president Steve Matier, who we reached by telephone in New Mexico. Matier is an engineer with more than 16 years’ experience managing rocket fuel at a NASA test facility before becoming a consultant. He says ongoing efforts are underway to secure more private sector financing, and United Paradyne is currently the largest shareholder.
MLS bases its business case on the growing international market for putting satellites in space (Canada isn’t the target market and the Canadian Space Agency says it has no plans to get involved with this venture) at a price point of $45 million per launch, which could be split among companies or government customers. Between three and eight launches a year from northeastern Nova Scotia are being tossed around, with the earliest possible launch late in 2019.
What are the potential risks and benefits for the municipality of the district of Guysborough, where out-migration and unemployment are huge issues? Let’s assume the project is not pie-in-the-sky and start with the good stuff — before we get to the scary stuff which the company worries journalists like me will “over-dramatize.”
Guysborough CAO Barry Carroll would welcome the 30-40 full-time jobs associated with the control centre and the processing facility where the rocket will be assembled after arriving in sections from Ukraine. A single-track rail line will be built to transport the rocket from the assembly site to the launch pad 1.5 kilometres away at a dot on the map called Dover.
Canso is a remote community on the far eastern tip of the mainland, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from both Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury. The municipality of Guysborough expects full-time workers would make their home in the area — a potential boon for Canso (population: 830). An extra 100 short-term jobs would be created over the 18 months required to build the launch facilities. In the few weeks leading up to a satellite launch, Carroll says there could be temporary work for another 100 people.
And if you build it, will they come?
“I think it is going to be a tourism draw that we can capitalize on,” Carroll says. “We’ve great observation points along the Atlantic coast. People have been going to Cape Canaveral for decades to watch launches there, so we expect an influx here in Guysborough as well.”
And what about the risks? The fuel used to deliver satellites contains an extremely toxic chemical called hydrazine, or a form of hydrazine called UDMH (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine), which makes both transporting the fuel and launching rockets dangerous.
UDMH can persist in the soil and fresh water for 34 years before breaking down. A 1999 health study of six thousand aerospace workers who handled hydrazine fuels found they were one to two times more likely to develop lung cancer than unexposed workers. A United Nations Development report from 2004 that surveyed the health of 48,000 adults and children in an area of Kazakhstan where a couple of Proton rockets fuelled by UDMH crashed to the ground in 1999 found significant health issues and higher than normal rates of cancer.
“The children had a ‘high frequency of pathology in physical development’ (UNDP, 2004, p. 88). Eighty-three percent of infants suffered from rickets, with anaemia, weakened immune systems, and high rates of urinary tract and thyroid disease present across all age groups. Only 26.5 percent of the adults could ‘be characterized as healthy people, the rest had various types of pathological illnesses’ (UNDP, 2004, p. 89), with high levels of cardiovascular illnesses, skin and breast cancer, throat, stomach and lung disease.”
The author of that paper is Dr. Michael Byers, the Canada research chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. I asked him how much people in Nova Scotia should be concerned about the potential of an accident involving rocket fuel.
“The risk of an accident on the launch pad or early in flight is real and could release UDMH onto land or into the air or ocean,” replied Byers in an email.
That sounds scary, although both Byers and the president of Maritime Launch Services agree Nova Scotians do not have to be concerned about a rocket crash during flight. Once in space, if the rocket veers from its planned trajectory, onboard systems can correct and cause the rocket to splash down into the Atlantic Ocean far south of Nova Scotia. This might not be consoling, however, for humans and other species south of us, as no studies have been done on rocket debris in a marine environment.
“The use of that propellant (UDMH) is probably 2,000 km away from Nova Scotia and 100 miles high,” says Matier, the MLS president. “UDMH is critical to almost every launch vehicle out there because you can start and stop your engines and make adjustments in space to deliver your payloads where your customers want them.”
NASA no longer launches rockets but contracts that out to private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK. Rocket science continues to evolve, and most engines used by the European Space Agency, China, and Japan have been modified to avoid using hydrazine in their first stage of early lift off, reducing some of the danger.
While “greener” fuels are being developed, Matier says they are still years away from being ready. That means most types of rockets still use hydrazine during the final stage of flight to deploy satellites to their exact location. Hydrazine is used in the Dragon engine which SpaceX uses to deliver satellites into orbit, and it will also be used in the Cyclone 4M rocket that Maritime Launch Services plans to blast off from Nova Scotia.
So the major concerns involving hydrazine are two-fold: What if something should go wrong on the launch pad? Or when transporting the fuel to the rocket assembly site or through the town of Canso?
“For 70 years we have putting rockets in space in North America and for the most part with large success,” says Barry Carroll. “The safety record of launches and particularly the rocket they are going to use has been very high and we do not see huge risk associated with their plan.”
Anyone who watched the horror of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle blowing up 73 seconds after its launch with seven crew aboard will never forget it. Today, however, rockets carrying satellites don’t have a crew, and the fuel used in lift-off no longer contains hydrazine. Carroll is correct when he says the safety track record of the Ukrainian-made Cyclone series of rockets is impressive. In 228 flights using earlier versions of the Cyclone, there have been no failures on the launch pad. A few flights have had minor problems in orbit.
The 4M is the latest edition of the same rocket and MLS may be one of a dwindling number of customers for the Yuzhmash factory in Ukraine. A published report by Reuters six months ago says the plant has fallen on hard times since 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and stopped ordering rockets from Yuzhmash for its space program.
A subsequent report from the New York Times explored the possibility that UDMH is the fuel being used by the North Korean rocket program.
Matier is quick to point out “in the unlikely event we have a bad day” (that’s how engineers refer to a worst-case scenario) and the rocket explodes on the launch pad, the damage will be contained within 500 meters around the pad. That standard is set by the U.S. Defense Department’s Explosives Safety Board and accepted by NASA, Canadian, and International authorities.
One reason MLS thinks northeastern Nova Scotia is such an ideal site is because the nearest community (Canso) is three kilometres from the launch pad and even employees in the control centre will be 1.5 kilometres away during blast off. Firefighting equipment is on site to deal with any residual fuel which is supposed to burn up within minutes.
Matier says the setback standards are “intentionally conservative” and MLS has “about quadruple the required distance from people.”
“About two years ago”, says Matier, “an Orbital ATK rocket (just like ours) failed to launch in Virginia. It started to takeoff, they got 50 feet above the ground, it came back down, and blew up. They were 70 meters from the shore and we are 1,500 meters away from the ocean. When you look at the fallout from that rocket, the debris field, the water tower is still there and the propellant tankage on the ground is still there. The debris pattern from that rocket did not quite reach the ocean and we are much farther away.”
It’s an interesting example. Barry Carroll says one of the first meetings Matier had was with the Guysborough Inshore Fishermen’s Association, who are no strangers to risk and who Carroll says were reassured by what they heard. One scientist seeking more information about the Spaceport project is bird expert Dr. John Kearney. When the Municipality put up Sable Wind, the first wind farm in the province, it was required to do a post-construction two-year study to assess the impact of the turbines on migratory birds. Kearney did that work.
He then got interested in the Spaceport because the proposed control centre is just 300 meters from the base of a wind turbine. Kearney can cite studies (one by Van Doren in 2017 involving the monument to 9/11 victims in New York City) that indicate lights can attract and disorient migratory birds from as far as 1.5 kilometres away. Kearney’s initial concern was that more birds might try to fly though the blades attracted by additional light from the Spaceport.
“I am concerned about potential impacts on birds from lighting and habitat destruction,” he says. “However, the main reason why I am contacting the Halifax Examiner is because no one seems to want to report on the hazard posed by the extremely toxic rocket fuel that will be transported to, stored, and used at the Canso Spaceport. I have expressed concerns about this as it pertains to birds, but the risk to humans should be at the forefront of any decisions. Rocket fuel is beyond my expertise, but I feel that there needs to be more of a public discussion about this.”
The Department of Environment will advertise a 30-day public comment period as part of the Class 1 Environmental Assessment of the proposed Spaceport.
Both Matier and Carroll dismiss Kearney’s concerns and accuse him of raising unnecessary fears. “It’s a sore point with the Municipality that we had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out no more than a handful of birds were killed each year, and that included a bat and a loon which weren’t even migratory,” says Carroll.
Matier says the lighting on the control centre will be “minimal,” mostly for security to keep anyone from climbing the fence, and that he’s willing to invite Kearney to participate in the choice of lighting. Matier says the building will be low, unoccupied at night, and situated down the hill from the turbine where birds are unlikely to see it.
As for the bigger issue concerning the safe transportation and storage of a highly toxic fuel, Maritime Launch Services has a plan. Matier says the bulk UMDH fuel will be purchased from the US, China, or Russia. It will be brought in by ship before being barged to the public wharf in the centre of Canso. From the wharf it will be loaded into United Paradyne’s specially designed tanks and transported by flat-bed truck through the community to the launch pad a five-minute drive away.
Matier notes that in the USA, trucks loaded with hazardous chemicals roll down highways unannounced and unescorted every day. In Canada, he says, “care will be taken” to ensure each truck gets an escort and all Canadian rules will be followed. Guysborough’s Carroll suggests the main road might even be closed for the short time it will take to deliver and then store the fuel in 20,000 litre tanks at the launch pad.
Another precaution MLS is taking is to bring in and deliver the UDMH separately from the oxygen, to further reduce any risk of ignition. “We won’t be carrying fuel and oxidizer on the same barge,” explains Matier. “That’s when bad stuff can happen, when they are co-located. We will bring them in separately.”
Barry Carroll says residents can take comfort from the fact that rocket launches are among the most tightly regulated activities on the planet. There will be oversight from NavCanada, Transport Canada, the Coast Guard, the Canadian Space Agency, and the provincial Department of Environment, among others.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment declined a request for comment on the project proposal, saying it would be “premature” prior to the company filing its Environment Assessment. That’s despite the fact the Project description has been available for 15 months.
I asked Guysborough CAO Barry Carroll to rate, on a scale of 10, the probability of the Spaceport literally getting off the ground. He politely declined, having learned from experience how ephemeral development can be.
“We have high hopes, we see this as a serious project,” Carroll told me. “But we’ve been down this road before with other companies — including LNG imports and petrochemical facilities — so we realize tomorrow something could happen that changes things.”
Meanwhile, California calls.