Bill Could Pave Way For Rocket-Launching 'Spaceports' In Maine

Mar 5, 2020

The Maine Legislature is considering a bill that would establish a "Maine Spaceport Complex Leadership Council." Spaceport as in rocket launching.

Sascha Deri is chief executive of bluShift Aerospace, a Maine-based company that’s trying to develop a rocket that uses bio-derived fuel. Deri spoke about the project recently with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

GRATZ: Welcome Sacha.

DERI: Thank you very much Irwin.

So what's your understanding about what this council would do?

What the council would be doing is developing a plan for us to develop the new space ecosystem for launching satellites, creating satellites, developing the R&D infrastructure.

What do you see as the advantages of having a launch site in the state of Maine?

Because the coast is facing due south, we can launch satellites due south over the poles looping from south to north, south to north, without possibly hitting other obstructions. You can't do that anywhere elsewhere along the eastern seaboard without hitting other cities. And it turns out that 50% of the market for launching these small satellites is to launch them in these what are called polar orbits.

Explain why those polar orbits are useful compared to the traditional orbits, which tend, to some degree, follow an east-west trajectory.

A lot of them can be used for Earth imaging, and they can, over the course of the day, they go up and down from north to south or south to north, and getting slices or pictures of the Earth every time they pass over, and the Earth sort of rotates below them. And then over the course of one day, they will image the earth one full time. And then this turns out to be a really good orbit also for communication satellites. So you could have broadband satellites providing the same high-speed data service up in Aroostook County as you might get in Saco.

So in terms of a possible site in Maine, we'd be talking about somewhere along the coast?
 
Yeah, we have our eyes fixated, as a company, on the Washington County area. And we not only want to do this in Washington County, but we're hoping we can do a small launch facility up in Aroostook County for our first type of rocket, which will be doing suborbital launches where we just take our payloads up into space - scientific payloads - and bring them back down. Turns out the former Loring Air Force Base could be a perfect area for us to do those types of launches.

Your company is also trying to distinguish itself by developing, as you mentioned, a bio-derived fuel. How's that going?

Very well. We just completed our phase one grant with NASA, and developing our engine. And we've been hitting all of our performance numbers. You know, one thing that we're really proud of with this rocket is - sometimes things don't go right. We hope that never happens to us, but if it does, if our fuel or oxidizer lands in the ocean, it will not poison fish or lobsters or wildlife, period.

What do you use as components for it?

It's a bio-derived wax - it's a recipe of a couple different waxes.

Is there a timetable for when one of your rockets might actually fly?

We're hoping that within 18 months we can fly our first prototype flight. And this wouldn't be into space, it'd be just several miles up. And then we're hoping within one to two years after that to do our first launch into space. And what we're talking about here is creating a launch facility to support small rockets like ours, which is really the new direction that the space industry is going into - small dedicated launch vehicles that are capable of carrying these small, tiny satellites.

How small?

You know, not much bigger than what I can hold in my hand.

Now, in researching this topic, it does seem to me that there's potential competition for these kinds of facilities. Work is supposed to begin later this year at a launch site in Canso, Nova Scotia. There's talk of another on Cape Breton, there are airports in Jacksonville, Florida, and Michigan, both pitching themselves as places where you could launch rockets that are mounted on airplanes. Is there enough business for all of these launch sites?

I think ultimately we'll have to see. There certainly isn't enough business right now for all these different sites. But I think that's where Maine has the advantage. At Loring we can easily do launches from airplanes. This is where rockets are strapped underneath a plane and launched from there. Washington County, a polar-facing launch facility - you can't do that from Jacksonville. You can't do that from Michigan. Yes, you can do that from Nova Scotia. But within the U.S., we're one of the few places you can do that without putting people or property at risk.

Sascha Deri is the chief executive of bluShift Aerospace, based in Brunswick. The Legislature's Committee on Innovation Development, Economic Advancement and Business holds a public hearing Thursday on the "Resolve To Establish The Maine Spaceport Complex Leadership Council." The council is to create a strategic plan, and by Dec. 31 of next year present that plan to the governor and Legislature. Sascha, thank you.

Thank you very much, Irwin.

 Originally posted 8:43 a.m. March 5, 2020