Maine may be best known for lobsters, lighthouses, and logging, but the state also has a growing tech scene. A new project hopes to launch that growth into orbit — literally.
After years of planning, Maine Governor Janet Mills this month approved a proposal creating a public-private partnership dubbed the Maine Space Corp. to build a rocket launching “spaceport” at the old Brunswick Naval Air Station within the next 10 years.
Located about 25 miles north of Portland, the facility was decommissioned by the military a decade ago, freeing up more than 3,000 acres for development. It’s been a focal point for stimulating more tech startups ever since, and the home of the TechPlace accelerator since 2014.
Maine satellite launch startup VALT Enterprizes has been among those pushing the state to create its own launch site. The effort grew out of a NASA-funded nonprofit, the Maine Space Grant Consortium, which funds scholarships and small grants for space-related studies.
VALT founder and chief executive Karl Hoose, who is on the consortium’s board, said the group was brainstorming for a wildly ambitious new project a few years ago when he had an idea.
“They asked what would be a moonshot project for Maine,” Hoose said. “It’s launching a [small] satellite from here.”
A rocket launch pad in Maine? Most rockets launched in the United States depart from Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a reason. Launching from those more southerly locations gives rockets a boost (the Earth’s rotational velocity is faster the closer to the equator). But the benefit for more northerly launch sites is a quicker path to get satellites into orbit over the poles.
Still, there isn’t huge demand for polar orbits, and the planned spaceport will only be able to accommodate rockets carrying smaller satellites. Alaska already has a launch site for polar-bound satellites, and Michigan and Nova Scotia have similar projects underway.
But thanks to the rapidly decreasing cost of building and launching satellites, demand for the smallest satellites, which can do everything from monitor the weather to provide Internet access from space, is exploding. The total market is projected to hit almost $70 billion by 2030, according to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Hoose points out that small satellites are also perfect to provide data to aid his state’s fishing, forestry, and farming industries.
There may be enough business to support multiple sites, said venture capitalist Ethan Batraski at Venrock, who follows the industry. “There are limited operational launch sites today,” he said. Maine and other locations “are critical pieces of infrastructure required in order to unlock the space economy.”
The even bigger idea in Maine is to create a cluster of launch-related businesses in and around the spaceport. In addition to the launch site, the bill signed by Mills also creates a center for advanced computing and an “innovation hub” dedicated to manufacturing space vehicles and other space tech.
“It’s a long-term vision, which is what you really need for something like this,” Hoose said.