Physics and geography

A good understanding of both is helpful, if you are 1) an astrophysicist trying to raise money for a private space launch facility, or 2) the wire services reporter assigned to cover the story.

MONTREAL—The head of the Muhammad Institute for Space Science wants to build a space-launch facility in Canada.

Redouane Al Fakir’s goal is putting the Islamic world back at the forefront of scientific discovery.

But the Vancouver astrophysicist wants all Canadians to be involved in his project.

His proposed commercial space port in British Columbia would be the first of its kind in this country — and Al Fakir says it’s about time.

The way he sees it, if countries like India, China and Japan can launch satellites into space, why not Canada?

The UBC astronomer is out raising money, especially in the Middle East, but he faces a big challenge: Al Fakir estimates that it would take $100 million to build a facility, and $500 million to send up a rocket.

— Canadian Press. “Man raising money in Middle East for Canadian space launch site“. Toronto Star, 5 December 2010.

Let me say first of all that I would welcome the development of a commercial space launch facility, but the choice of Vancouver (and well, Canada in general) presents some significant challenges.

When our American neighbours selected Cape Canaveral as their launch facility, it wasn’t just because of readily available land, and an affinity for alligators. Florida is a lot closer to the Earth’s equator than any other continental American state, and that proximity translates into increased speed for the boosting platform. (Wired magazine’s Rhett Allain has penned a good summary of the physics and constraints of geography.)

To get that speed boost you also need to launch in the direction of the Earth’s rotation (which is from west to east). A booster leaving Florida on an easterly heading takes it out over the Atlantic, which is handy if you have to drop stages or debris and want to avoid killing people on the ground in the process. Launching from Vancouver means the ascent path would take a booster over populated areas of British Columbia and Alberta. Not so good if you have to abort/destroy the booster, or drop stages on the way to orbit.

Then there’s the more prosaic concerns about communications and telemetry, having appropriate tracking resources on orbit so that you don’t have to build an array of expensive ground tracking stations. And making sure the launch facility is sturdy enough to endure our wintry climate, and so on.

Building a launch centre here is certainly not impossible, but it will always be more expensive in fuel and hardware than launching the same booster and payload from somewhere further south. Countries such as India, China and Japan are a whole lot closer to the equator than Canada, and as such will always enjoy an energy (and financial) advantage over something launched from a higher latitude.

These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they’re worth keeping in mind when you’re trying to make money from such a venture.

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