Maine seeks to develop space economy, for students, research and businesses

bluShift Aerospace on February 4, 2021, launched the Stardust 1.0 rocket from Maine, their first launch as they seek to bring small satellite launches to Pine Tree State. Photo courtesy of bluShift Aerospace/Twitter

BANGOR, Maine, June 7 (UPI) — Maine leaders and policymakers have long sought ways to keep more of the state’s high school and college graduates from leaving. But lobster and forestry, two mainstays of Maine’s economy, aren’t what they used to be.

Enter the new space economy.

“There’s something sexy about space,” Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, a nonprofit organization funded by NASA, told UPI.

Maine — and its plethora of acreage, far from the light pollution of big East Coast metropolises — has always been a great place for stargazing, but not necessarily for launching rockets.

The miniaturization of the satellites and rockets needed to put them into orbit has changed the calculus, however. The barrier to entry is now low enough that space, or at least low Earth orbit, is no longer the exclusive playground of national space agencies and defense giants.

Now, states not traditionally associated with the aerospace industry — Maine and Michigan, for example — want to get in on the game.

Build it and they will come

In April, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed into law LD Bill 1923, establishing the Maine Space Corporation, a public-private partnership to develop the state’s aerospace industry.

When the law takes effect in August, the company will get to work fulfilling leadership roles and codifying its goals and governance. Next, they will begin developing a strategic plan for the construction of the Maine space complex, which will include launch sites, an innovation center and a data analysis center.

Last year, a Maine-based startup, bluShift Aerospace, launched the state’s first rocket. Although the rocket didn’t quite reach space, it successfully showcased the company’s “bio-derived” solid fuel capabilities.

bluShift, which hopes to start launching small satellites using its carbon-neutral rockets, is one of many companies Maine officials have reached out to as they consider strategies to capture a slice of the new economy. spatial.

“We have been thinking for some time about how to take the state to the next level,” Shehata said.

More than a spaceport

Before moving on with LD 1923 and the Maine Space Corporation, Shehata and the consortium worked with members of the legislature to ensure Maine attracted the interest of businesses, researchers and community leaders.

“We knew that one of Maine’s key assets is the geography in terms of being on the east coast and one of the positions to launch small satellites into polar orbit,” Shehata said.

“But our primary concern has been whether we can capitalize on this new space economy in a way that uses our unique strengths, drives economic growth and workforce development, and does so in a way that would allow us to keep our students here in the state.”

Surveys and market research revealed a healthy dose of local demand, but they also confirmed the suspicions of Shehata and others that a spaceport was not enough.

“What we’re doing is more than a spaceport,” Shehata said. “In addition to the spaceport, we decided we needed this innovation center and a data analytics hub to ensure we had a more comprehensive complex.”

The three units will collect fees and be able to survive financially on their own, according to Shehata, but the three hubs will operate collectively, as a coordinated and cohesive entity.

Building a more comprehensive complex was key to ensuring the state developed infrastructure that could be used by a diversity of groups, according to State Senator Mattie Daughtry, the bill’s lead sponsor, from communications providers to students. engineers.

Diversity of stakeholders

“It’s not about setting up an open-for-business sign or attracting Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos-style launches,” Daughtry told UPI, speaking about the bill. “It’s about creating a leadership council that makes sure all the different parties and stakeholders are working together.”

For states without a long history of aerospace activity, a multifaceted approach is essential, according to Dylan Taylor, a major investor in the new space economy and CEO of Voyager, a space exploration company.

“The best strategies are integrated approaches where education, technology development, infrastructure, capital availability and political support all mesh around the industry,” Taylor told UPI in an email. . “Multi-stakeholder coordination is the key to success.”

Global Data, Maine Apps

In addition to engaging Maine students, both Shehata and Daughtry cited the importance of bridging the ties between the Maine Space Corporation and Maine industries on the ground.

Ali Abedi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maine, who testified in favor of LD 1923 earlier this year, is currently working on designing and building small satellites equipped with microspectral cameras.

“We can use these cameras to study phytoplankton concentrations in the water, which could be useful to Maine’s aquaculture industry,” Abedi told UPI. “We can also use data from these cameras to study the effects of urban heat islands.”

“The third application is to monitor different forests. By studying colors in different parts of forests, we can see where diseases could spread and damage forest canopies.”

Small satellites launched in Maine could be used to study forests, fields, cities and bodies of water around the world, while helping researchers monitor the Pine Tree State’s own natural resources.

“We need to make sure that the value of the space complex flows back to the different sectors of Maine’s economy,” Shehata said.

The global economy is increasingly data driven. If Maine companies can find a way to collect valuable information from low Earth orbit, it won’t be hard to find customers willing to pay for it — at least, by Taylor’s logic.

The data, Taylor said, is the draw.

“Now that we have a reusable, reliable and relatively inexpensive launch, there has been a blossoming of space launch hardware,” Taylor said in an email. “This in turn generates a treasure trove of spatial data.”

“With this data, completely new business models are created. The capabilities are extraordinary, as evidenced by some of the space data from the private sector Ukraine conflict.”

Much of the data collected by the small satellites launched from the Maine space complex will not be for sale – it will be free, available to students at Maine universities for all sorts of research purposes.

An economy of green spaces offers many advantages

Non-space industries will also benefit from work done at the complex’s innovation center, LD 1923 supporters said.

“We already have companies here in Maine pushing for climate-neutral launches and climate-friendly fuels,” Daughtry said.

The work could contribute to broader efforts to reduce the United States’ carbon footprint, she said.

For many in the new space economy, miniaturization is essential. Efforts to fit more technology into tight spaces require electronics and instrumentation to be as efficient as possible.

“Efforts to build more power-efficient circuits or low-power radio communication systems with greater data efficiency can benefit other areas of technology,” Abedi said.

Funding and future

According to Shehata, building the Maine space complex will cost between $50 million and $250 million, but the Maine Space Corporation won’t be starting from scratch.

Officials expect to use some relevant infrastructure that already exists, including a pair of military installations that are no longer in use – Brunswick Naval Air Station in southern Maine and Loring Air Force Base further north, near the Canadian border.

It’s not yet clear how the Maine space complex will be funded, but Shehata said the public-private partnership is likely to seek federal grants, seek business partners and possibly even issue bonds.

The grant consortium overseen by Shehata will help the company get organized and provide initial seed funding.

“We’re basically going to provide back-office services to the company with additional funds we get from the federal government to build the infrastructure, and then in a few years we’ll pull out and form a strategic partnership with the company,” he said. said.

It’s about the children

Proponents of LD 1923 and the Maine Space Complex expect the project to be financially viable without direct support from the Maine treasury and taxpayers, but Shehata and Daughtry said facilitating collaboration is the primary goal. .

“The goal is to have a statewide effort on this,” Daughtry said. “What really excites me are the connections between the space complex, space companies and academia.”

“I’m really interested to see how high school students use some of these low-cost devices.”

Shehata suggests Maine’s space complex could bring more than 5,500 well-paying jobs to the state by 2042.

If a high school student is lucky enough to study state resources using data captured by a satellite launched from Maine, perhaps that commitment motivates him to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Maine.

And if the Maine Space Corporation does manage to capture a piece of the new space economy – which is expected to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040 – maybe, just maybe, after graduating, this student won’t have to look out of state for a job in the aerospace industry.

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor during a flyby of the orbiting lab that took place after it undocked from the space-facing port of the Harmony module on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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