VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian Space Agency is studying the possibility of developing a launch system for microsatellites, a capability that if approved by the government would be a first for the country.

Canada has facilities for launching rockets to suborbital altitudes but has relied on various other nations for launches beyond that. The Canadian Space Agency already has conducted feasibility studies that found it would be possible, but challenging, to develop an indigenous launch capability.

A plan outlining research and development into propulsion systems has now been put forward for Canadian Space Agency (CSA) management to examine, said Eric Dubuc, a manager of technology development at the agency. “We tried to design an R&D program to address very specific and very basic questions regarding those key enabling technologies,” Dubuc said. “The next step is waiting for a decision on whether we as an organization decide to move forward on that.”

The research and development project would be on a subscale but would focus on demonstrating and validating that Canada could develop a propulsion system for its own launch capability, he said. CSA’s focus is on a rocket sized to put a 150-kilogram satellite into an 800-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, he added.

Dubuc said another study also is under way to examine how many microsatellites are expected to be built in the future. In addition, that study will look at the pros and cons of various ways to develop a launcher, dealing with issues such as the value of public and private partnerships in such a venture.

But Dubuc said even if Canada were to proceed — and at this point that is not a given — it could take as much as 10 years before a system was in place. “We’re talking a lot of money here and very long time frames,” he explained. “Developing a launcher is not easy, it’s not trivial.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but we have very good minds in this country to address those. It’s just a matter to make sure we do it in such a fashion that we actually build capacity and knowledge of this.”

Dubuc said the CSA study includes an indication of how much it would cost to build a launch system, but he declined to discuss those details.

Kevin Shortt, president of the Canadian Space Society, said the issue of whether Canada should build its own launch system has been discussed on and off since the 1960s. He noted, however, that the CSA’s research and development plan for propulsion systems could indicate that this time the space agency is serious about the issue. “Canada could carve out a niche for itself in microsatellite launches,” Shortt said, adding that the country’s geographic location is ideal for particular launches such as for polar orbits.

But Shortt also said the CSA’s estimate of a 10-year development is too long. He noted that there are existing facilities for suborbital launches in Churchill, Manitoba, that could be quickly adapted for orbital launches.

In interviews with Space News, Canadian space specialists and aerospace industry members appeared divided on whether the country needed its own launch capability.

Robert Zee, director of the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory, said Canada is totally reliant on other nations when it comes to orbital launches, even though its industry is capable of developing a launch system. “I think it’s a valid goal,” Zee said of the development of an indigenous launch capability. “As to whether it would have sufficient political backing to see it all the way through to completion, that’s another thing.”

An indigenous launch capability geared specifically toward smaller satellites would be useful, Zee said.

Dan Goldberg, president of Telesat, the world’s fourth-largest fixed satellite services operator, said that he is in favor of more launch capability being available to the aerospace industry.

But he noted that the costs of developing an indigenous launch capability would be very significant. “Unless there’s very compelling reasons, it |doesn’t seem to be a fruitful endeavor,” Goldberg said.

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.