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Maine looks to grow space economy, for students, research and business

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

BANGOR, Maine, June 7 (UPI) -- Maine leaders have long been searching for ways to keep more of high school and college graduates from leaving the state. But lobstering and forestry, two stalwarts of the Maine economy, aren't what they used to be.

Enter the new space economy.

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"There's something sexy about space," Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded nonprofit, told UPI.

Maine -- and its plethora of acreage, far from the light pollution of the Eastern Seaboard's major metropolises -- has always been a great place to gaze at the stars, but not necessarily to launch rockets.

The miniaturization of satellites and the rockets needed to put them into orbit, however, has changed the calculus. 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 giant defense companies.

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States not traditionally associated with the aerospace industry -- Maine and Michigan, for example -- want in on the game.

Build it and they will come

In April, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed LD 1923 into law, establishing the Maine Space Corp., a public-private partnership tasked with growing the state's aerospace industry.

When law goes into effect in August, the corporation will get to work filling leadership roles and codifying their goals and governance. Then it will begin crafting a strategic plan for the construction of the Maine Space Complex, which will feature launch sites, an innovation hub and a data analytics center.

Last year, a Maine-based startup company, bluShift Aerospace, launched the state's first rocket. Though it didn't quite reach space, it successfully showcased the capabilities of the company's "bio-derived" solid fuel.

bluShift, which hopes to begin launching small satellites using its carbon-neutral rockets, is one of several companies that Maine officials reached out to as they considered strategies for capturing a slice of the new space economy.

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"We've been thinking about how to take the state to the next level for some time now," Shehata said.

More than a spaceport

Before pushing ahead with LD 1923 and the Maine Space Corp., Shehata and the consortium worked with members of the legislature to ensure Maine had built-in interest from businesses, researchers and community leaders.

"We knew that one of the critical assets that Maine has is geography in terms of being on the Eastern Seaboard and one of the positions to launch small satellites into polar orbits," Shehata said.

"But our primary concern has been whether we can capitalize on this new space economy in a way that utilizes our unique assets, spurs economic growth and workforce development, and do 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 wasn't enough.

"What we're doing is more than a spaceport," Shehata said. "In addition to spaceport, we decided we needed to have this innovation center and data analytics hub to make sure we have a more complete complex."

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

Building a more complete complex was key to ensuring the state developed infrastructure that could be used by a diversity of groups, said state Sen. Mattie Daughtry, the bill's lead sponsor, from communication providers to student engineers.

Stakeholder diversity

"This is not about putting out an 'open for business' sign or attracting Elon Musk- and Jeff Bezos-style launches," Daughtry told UPI, speaking of the bill. "It's about creating a leadership council that ensures all the different parties and stakeholders are working together."

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

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

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Global data, Maine applications

In addition to engaging Maine's students, Shehata and Daughtry cited the importance of bridging connections between the Maine Space Corp. and Maine's industries on the ground.

Ali Abedi, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maine, who testified in support of LD 1923 earlier this year, is working to design and build small satellites outfitted with microspectral cameras.

"We can use those cameras to study the concentrations of phytoplankton in the water, so that could be useful to Maine's aquaculture industry," Abedi told UPI. "We can also use data from these cameras to study urban heat island effects.

"The third application is monitoring different forests. By studying the colors in different parts of forests, we can see where diseases might be spreading and harming the forest canopies."

Small satellites launched in Maine could be used to study forest, fields, cities and water bodies all over the globe, while also helping researchers monitor the Pine Tree State's own natural resources.

"We have to make sure that the value of the space complex comes back to the various sectors in Maine's economy," Shehata said.

The world economy is increasingly data driven. If companies in Maine can find a way to collect valuable information from low-Earth orbit, it won't be difficult to find customers willing to pay for it -- at least, according to Taylor's logic.

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Data, Taylor said, is the draw.

"Now that we have a reusable, reliable and relatively inexpensive launch, there has been a flourishing of launching hardware into space," Taylor said in an email. "This in turn is generating a treasure trove of spaced-based data.

"With this data, entire new business models are being created. The capabilities are extraordinary, as evidenced by some of the space-based data that came out of the Ukraine conflict from the private sector."

Much of the data collected by small satellites launched from the Maine Space Complex won't be for sale -- it will be free, available to students at Maine's universities for all sorts of research purposes.

Broad benefits

Non-space industries will also benefit from work being done at the complex's innovation hub, supporters of the bill said.

"We already have companies right here in Maine that are pushing for climate-neutral launches and climate-friendly fuels," Daughtry said.

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

For many in the new space economy, miniaturization is essential. Efforts to squeeze more tech into smaller confines require electronics and instruments to be as efficient as possible.

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

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Financing and the future

It will cost $50 million to $250 million to construct the Maine Space Complex, according to Shehata, but the Maine Space Corp. won't be starting from scratch.

Officials expect to utilize some existing infrastructure, including a pair of military facilities no longer in use -- Brunswick Naval Air Station in Southern Maine and Loring Air Force Base farther north, near the Canadian border.

It's not clear how the Maine Space Complex will be funded, but Shehata said the public-private partnership is likely to pursue federal grants, seek out commercial partners and perhaps even issue bonds.

The grant consortium that Shehata oversees will help the corporation get organized and provide some initial seed funding.

"We are going to basically provide back-office services to the corporation with additional funds that we are securing from the federal government to build up the infrastructure, and then in a few years, we will step aside and establish a strategic partnership with the corporation," he said.

It's about the kids

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

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"The goal is to be having a statewide effort on this," Daughtry said. "The thing that I am really excited about are the links between the space complex, space companies and academics.

"I'm really interested to see how high school students use some of these low-cost devices."

Shehata suggests the Maine Space Complex could bring more than 5,500 high-paying jobs to the state by 2042.

If a high school student gets a chance to study the state's resources using data captured by a satellite launched from Maine, maybe that engagement motivates them to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Maine.

And if the Maine Space Corp. is successful at capturing a slice of the new space economy -- expected to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040 -- maybe, just maybe, upon graduation, that student won't have to look outside the state for a job in the aerospace industry.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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