Friday, April 22, 2016

2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said "Yes!" But CSA Didn't Move Forward

          By Chuck Black

According to Toronto, Ontario based Continuum Aerospace CEO Arny Sokoloff, “Launch capability is basic infrastructure for a first world country. The rest of the G-8 nations, plus several other smaller nations, have this capability. We should too.”

A graphic representation of orbital launch projects and capabilities. Red denotes confirmed orbital launch capable countries. Orange denotes confirmed orbital launch capable intergovernmental organization members such as the European Space Agency (ESA). Green denotes nations with orbital launch projects in development or planned. Blue denotes countries with unsuccessful and abandoned orbital launch projects. Canada, Egypt and Iraq are blue. Graphic c/o Jeffsapko at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Sokoloff knows what he is talking about. In 2009, his team authored the “Microsatellite Launch System Technical Feasibility Study Project Final Report,” under Canadian Space Agency (CSA) contract #28-7006058. The report was released in 2014 as part of an access to information request and is currently available through

It’s one of two concurrent studies procured under that CSA contract, both of which assessed Canada’s capacity to create and support a small domestic launcher. As outlined in the executive summary:
The feasibility of an indigenous Canadian microsatellite launch system of specified capabilities (150kg to 800km sun-synchronous orbit) was examined. It was confirmed that such a capability would meet much of the projected Canadian need, particularly as the utility of microsatellites has been increasing over time.
The report concluded that, “As a result of this study, we have determined that the original goals are feasible and can be achieved at a reasonable cost.” Overall cost was estimated at approximately $187Mln CDN over seven years; although a smaller satellite launcher could be built for less.

A plain document covering a fascinating topic. The front cover of "Microsatellite Launch System Technical Feasibility Study Project Final Report," as released by the CSA in compliance with the author's informal request of April 13th, 2016 to obtain records originally disclosed in 2014 as part of an earlier FOI request. To access the full document, simply click here. Screen shot c/o CSA and Continuum Aerospace. 

Of course, while feasibility studies in this area have been talked about at the CSA and its predecessors going back to the early days of space exploration, the 2009 Continuum report was the first study to see the light of day.

In a recent phone interview, Sokoloff outlined how the existing (and exclusively foreign) satellite launch services available to Canada in 2009 (and today) each suffer from problems:
  • The costs of flights to specified orbits are high.
  • The availability of launches is subject to long lead times and uncertainty in launch dates.
  • Orbit selection controlled by host launcher, not by Canadian needs; Canada has to “fit in,” to the launch provider's requirements.
  • Foreign governments control and limit Canadian satellite launches.
The goal of the 2009 study was to address these problems, especially when it came to northern sovereignty issues, where the countries we were trying to monitor in the Arctic were the most likely suppliers for launch berths,” said Sokoloff.

CSA studies and assessments are often announced but completed studies are seldom released to the public, especially if they discuss Canadian rockets, which are perceived of as being contrary to Federal government policy going back to the 1960's. As outlined in the April 19th, 2010 Space News post, "CSA Begins Studies for First Canadian Microsatellite Launch System," the CSA announced in 2010, over a year after the Continuum report was completed, that they were seriously exploring the possibility of "developing a launch system for microsatellites, a capability that if approved by the government would be a first for the country." But the initiative seems to have been suspended after then CSA president Stave MacLean retired in 2012. For more on the early development of Canada's policy concerns relating to rocket development, check out the December 27th, 2010 post on "Canada's Military Space Policy; Part 2, The Changing Political Landscape." Screenshot c/o Space News.

The report listed several “key technologies” which were not available as commercial-off-the-shelf items and /or were considered highly restricted by foreign governments. Propulsion; thrust vector control; vessels and pressurization; inertial navigation systems; flight-weight nozzles; and separation systems were identified as “needing further development” to be available to Canada unrestricted. Much of the money allocated to the project estimate was to go towards maturing those identified technologies.

As a reference design, the study settled on a three stage rocket, utilizing two sizes of LOX-paraffin hybrid rocket engines as the “preferred technical concept vehicle,” in order to avoid toxic fuels or explosives.

The second portion of the study, generally conceded to have been completed by Gormley, Ontario based Cesaroni Technology (which currently sells rocket components to Denver, Utah based UP Aerospace) and the Bristol Aerospace subsidiary of Mississauga, Ontario based Magellan Aerospace (which pioneered rocketry in Canada with the Black Brant series of suborbital sounding rockets), has not been released.

Rumour and innuendo suggest that the real problem with any Canadian based rocket was the lack of a compelling business case. But any discussion focused on that area needs to include an assessment of why other privately held rocket companies such as Rocket Lab have a business case but Canadian companies don't. Founded in New Zealand in 2007, Rocket Lab is currently a privately held American aerospace company headquartered in Los Angeles, California, although it retains an office in Aukland. Founder, CEO and technical director Peter Beck is shown above with an  Electron rocket, an all carbon composite launch vehicle. The company has obtained funding from a variety of sources including private venture firms Bessemer Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures along with Callaghan Innovation, a New Zealand government agency which supports domestic hi-tech businesses. Photo c/o Baldwins.

An April 14th, 2016 request into the CSA media relations office for clarification on two questions relating to why the study was initiated in 2009 and why the CSA never followed through with the report recommendations, has so far elicited no formal response from within the space agency.

But the CSA has responded to three other queries relating to the Cesaroni/ Magellen concurrent study.

According to CSA media relations officer Maya Eyssen:
1. Why was the FOI request to release the Cesaroni report rejected?
Processing of the Access to Information request was done in conformity with the Access to Information Act (the Act). Notice was given to third parties in accordance with section 27(1) of the Act. Representations were received by the third parties and the decision was made not to disclose part of the information. (section 28 of the Act).
2. Did the Cesaroni report come to a different conclusion from the Continuum report?
The information contained in that report is exempted pursuant to section 20(1)(b) and (c) of the Act, therefore CSA  cannot comment on the content of the document.
3. Will the Cesaroni report ever be released?
It is not CSA’s decision to publicly disclose or not this report. See section 27 and 28 of the Act.
It's expected that this story will be updated as more information becomes available. As outlined in an April 22nd, 2016 e-mail sent out in response to the initial query by Eyssen, ""I did my best to find the info but I will have to get back to you next week for the last two questions."

Chuck Black.
Editor's Note: On April 24th, Eyssen sent a short, curt e-mail explaining that, "after careful examination of the feasibility study reports and given higher priorities at the time, namely RCM (the RADARSAT Constellation mission) and ISS (Canada's ongoing contribution to the International Space Station), CSA opted not to pursue the development of indigenous launcher systems."

Here's hoping that other peoples rockets will be sufficient to support those initiatives.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.


  1. >CSA opted not to pursue the development of indigenous launcher systems.

    I'll be writing to my MLA. Again, "Slow, Canada" seems to be the order of the day.

  2. Dismissing the business case argument is wrong-minded. We're talking about taxpayer money, since no Canadian company would undertake the development effort, based on projected Canadian launches of small satellites. And the cost to develop a reliable launcher, considering infrastructure and other life-cycle costs, would be much higher than $187M. "Other developed countries" don't have their own launchers for domestic purposes. The EU, USA and Japan do, but the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, as stand-alone countries, do not.

  3. No one is dismissing the business case, Randy. The article merely mentions that there is one and its focused around the privately owned launch providers, not nations.

    The CSA could certainly contract a domestic launch provider for its launches, much as they do with foreign providers in the US, India and Russia now.

    And any domestic provider is certainly free to solicit further contracts on the international market and bring aboard additional funders much like the current foreign providers do.

    After all, why would any domestic launch provider be restricted to only launching Canadian satellites or accepting only Canadian money?

    As for your concerns about cost, the fact remains that no one I spoke to at the CSA, in government or in the military has questioned the conclusions of the Continuum report. They just said they had no additional money to pursue the project (off the record) and other priorities (such as RCM and ISS) were of higher political priority (on the record).

    As well, the estimated development costs are well within the same order of magnitude which SpaceX paid to develop the Falcon 1 and are far higher than Rocket Labs indicates it spent to develop the Electron rocket, which is designed to launch a similar sized payload.

  4. Almost forgot, Randy.

    My understanding is that Russia , the US, France, Japan, China, the UK, India, Israel, the Ukraine, Iran and North Korea have launched satellites into orbit under their national banners as per

    And while the UK and France no longer launch satellites under their national banner, the statement that, except for the US, the EU, Russia and Japan, "other developed countries" don't have their own launchers available for use, is almost certainly an error on your part.


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