LAUNCHES AMONG THE LOB­STERS: GROUP EYES MAINE FOR BLAST OFF

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It might sound like a moon­shot, but a group of sci­ence and space en­thu­si­asts wants Maine to be­come Amer­ica’s leader in send­ing tiny satel­lites into space.

The ten­ta­tive plan for the am­bi­tious project is to use a pair of for­mer air bases as the homes of an op­er­a­tion that would launch CubeSat satel­lites, so-called nanosatel­lites no big­ger than toast­ers. The for­mer Lor­ing Air Force Base in far north­ern Maine would serve as the launch site, while the for­mer Brunswick Naval Air Sta­tion closer to the state’s busy coast would house mis­sion con­trol.

The ef­fort’s ar­chi­tects aren’t just bak­ing pie in the sky. Project di­rec­tor and Maine Space Grant Con­sor­tium ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Terry She­hata has some pow­er­ful al­lies in­ter­ested in get­ting the plan into or­bit.

Maine Tech­nol­ogy In­sti­tute has awarded $50,000 for a fea­si­bil­ity study, while Maine Space Grant Con­sor­tium, which is sup­ported by Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, has com­mit­ted more than $88,000.

The next step is to find out whether there’s a mar­ket for such a fa­cil­ity in Maine, a state with a small tech sec­tor but lots of open sky to send satel­lites into.

“It does sound crazy, but why not?” She­hata said. “Why not see if peo­ple can get ex­cited about in­vest­ing in a new space econ­omy that would be the tide that raises all boats.”

Project back­ers will likely know by next fall if the project, which will take years and mil­lions of dol­lars to com­plete, is pos­si­ble, She­hata said. The work go­ing on right now is fo­cused on de­ter­min­ing whether there is enough in­ter­est from the pri­vate sec­tor to sup­port a nanosatel­lite fa­cil­ity in Maine, and if there is, the de­vel­op­ment of the pro­gram it­self would fol­low.

She­hata said he sees the Brunswick mis­sion con­trol fa­cil­ity as a busi­ness and sci­ence incubator with a strong com­po­nent for chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. In fact, he likes the idea of col­lab­o­rat­ing with Maine high school stu­dents to build the satel­lites.

The project’s ap­pli­ca­tion to Maine Tech­nol­ogy In­sti­tute calls the fa­cil­ity Space­Port Maine and states that there are cur­rently 10 space­ports in the U.S., but all but one of them are de­signed to launch large rock­ets, while Space­Port would fo­cus on smaller, lower-cost ve­hi­cles.

It also states that the project would be a union of pub­lic and pri­vate agen­cies work­ing to­gether to “give rise to a new Maine space tech­nol­ogy clus­ter.”

The heads of the re­de­vel­op­ment au­thor­i­ties of the two for­mer mil­i­tary bases in Lime­stone and Brunswick are both on board with the project, and have seats on its steer­ing com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee also in­cludes Dana Humphrey, dean of the Uni­ver­sity of Maine Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing and chair of the Maine Space Grant Con­sor­tium Board of Di­rec­tors, who sup­ports the idea.

The fact that the mis­sion con­trol and launch fa­cil­i­ties are 300 miles apart could be ad­van­tage for the project, Humphrey said. The mis­sion con­trol fa­cil­ity could be a hub of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, while the launch fa­cil­ity could be re­mote enough that it won’t en­counter too much re­sis­tance from a skep­ti­cal pub­lic, he said.

“When it goes up in the air, you want it to go up in the air with­out go­ing over a ma­jor pop­u­la­tion cen­ter, and that’s what we’ve got at Lor­ing,” he said.

The project’s or­ga­niz­ers will start to have a bet­ter idea of whether the plan is mov­ing for­ward by spring, She­hata said. Con­struc­tion cost is es­ti­mated at $200 mil­lion, with op­er­at­ing costs on top of that, he said.

Project ar­chi­tects would part­ner with Canada if the en­deavor goes for­ward be­cause of how close the launch site would be to the bor­der, She­hata said. He’s not overly con­cerned with the cold weather of north­ern Maine in­ter­fer­ing with launches but said the Space­Port “wouldn’t do it in a snow­storm.”

Maine Tech­nol­ogy In­sti­tute de­cided to in­vest in the project be­cause it could rep­re­sent the ger­mi­na­tion of “an emerg­ing tech­no­log­i­cal sec­tor for the state of Maine,” said Martha Bent­ley, the in­sti­tute’s di­rec­tor of in­no­va­tion in­fras­truc­ture.

Bent­ley called the project a po­ten­tial “space port with a twist” for the state.

“We’re try­ing to have an un­der­stand­ing, is this some­thing that could hap­pen in Maine, and what might it look like?” she said.

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