If you had access to a satellite, what would you do with it?
That is a question University of Maine engineering professor Ali Abedi and his colleagues asked Maine high school and middle school teachers and students three years ago and received 11 proposals. NASA funded one for a tiny satellite with four cameras that measure urban heat islands, identify algal blooms and measure the concentration of tiny organisms to determine the health of the ocean.
That satellite, about the size of a loaf of bread, is scheduled to be launched in June, but not in Maine. A NASA-funded group is trying to convince Maine lawmakers to increase the state’s role in the burgeoning space industry for low-orbit nanosatellites known as CubeSats that can be used for research by universities, state agencies and companies.
If the proposal is approved, a new spaceport would be created that envisions launch sites at two former military bases, the Loring Commerce Center in Aroostook County and Brunswick Landing, and other locations throughout the state. Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace successfully launched a commercial rocket from Loring in January. The spaceport, along with its data and innovation centers, aim to draw new revenue to the state and help educate and keep a technology workforce in Maine.
“We are trying to develop an environment to attract entrepreneurs and businesses,” said Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, the NASA-funded nonprofit behind the initiative.
Competition for the emerging satellite business already is stiff. NASA has set a goal of having every state set up a spaceport, and the FAA already has approved 13 spaceport locations, although none are in New England. Nova Scotia is the closest spaceport being proposed.
SpacePort Maine is being proposed in a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick. It would create a public-private partnership charged with building launch sites, a data and analytics center and an innovation hub. Shehata said Maine’s proximity to polar orbits and the plans to have associated data and innovation centers to help pay for the satellite launches give it an edge compared to other planned U.S. spaceports. The state already has a space industry, with 86 Maine companies involved in it.
A spaceport in Maine would bring more access to hands-on science to state educators and students, Abedi said. The University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine collaborated to build the CubeSat based on proposals from students at Saco Middle School, Fryeburg Academy and Falmouth High School.
“The end goal is to get more kids to come to science, technology and engineering programs so we can train the workforce,” he said.
If the spaceport is approved, it will take a while to get it up and running and get enough satellite launch business to make it viable, but Maine needs to invest in advanced technology initiatives, said Jeremy Qualls, dean of the University of Southern Maine’s College of Science, Technology and Health, who is collaborating with Abedi on the CubeSat project.
Maine is at an economic cliff with so much of its workforce depleted and an aging population that it needs to reinvent itself, Qualls said. Any spaceport will need anchor tenants and strong support from all educational levels to start creating a workforce, because the space workforce is specialized.
“The spaceport would be one of the viable sectors and technologies that we are uniquely situated to push into,” he said.
Nova Scotia announced a payload client for the first rocket launch, which it expects at the end of next year. Texas-based Nanoracks, a commercial payload provider to the International Space Station, plans to use the spaceport to deploy small satellites for its customers, an agreement worth $45 million, according to the company behind that proposed spaceport.
It is important for Maine to look beyond nanosatellites for research to diversify its income sources, Qualls said. He said the spaceport has the promise of creating a pipeline of business and innovation, and potentially used for weather applications and citizen science. That’s important to attract and keep students in Maine. Qualls, who has three kids, said they don’t expect to stay in Maine after they graduate from college, which rankles him.
“I want high-visibility programs that influence career trajectories,” he said.