From Polar Bears to Polar Orbits

Asia's Tech News Daily

From Polar Bears to Polar Orbits

Alaska is known for its polar bears, rugged landscapes, expansive areas and remoteness. Alaska is not the first place people envision when they think of rocket launches. However, Alaska is one of four locations in the United States that allow a rocket launch into polar orbit.

In fact, the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska (“PSCA”) operated by Alaska Aerospace Corporation has been launching rockets from Kodiak Island since 1998. Established by the State of Alaska in 1991 to develop the aerospace industry in Alaska, Alaska Aerospace Corporation has conducted 27 vehicle launches in the past 2 decades. With the increased demand for launches, Alaska is on the edge to lead the nation in commercial aerospace activities.

Alaska is well positioned for the commercial space launch industry for a number of reasons.

Known as “The Last Frontier,” Alaska is remote and has plenty of open, uninhabited land. Much of the unpopulated space is adjacent to large bodies of water and there is limited airline traffic to monitor in Alaska’s airspace. From the Federal Aviation Administration’s perspective, launching or reentering in a remote location, such as Kodiak, can meet required safety criteria and provide protection against high consequence events such as a malfunction in flight, overpressure blast effects, falling debris and other toxic hazards.

The PSCA spaceport in Kodiak has high inclination launch capabilities and flexibility on sun synchronous and polar oriented orbits. The spaceport is one of the last places that can track returning space vehicle flights before they splash down. SpaceX contracted with Alaska Aerospace Corporation to track the Dragon capsule when returning to Earth from the International Space Station.

As the commercial small-lift vehicle industry in the United States matures, so has the aerospace industry in Alaska. The PSCA is a well-suited launch site for private space companies, like SpaceX, Astra and others. It is also a strategic launch site for the federal government. Alaska Aerospace Corporation has performed launches for the Missile Defense Agency from the PSCA and works with the Space Development Agency.

In June 2021, the Clear Space Force Station 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska became the third Space Force base to support missile defense and space domain awareness operations in the United States. In addition, Alaska Aerospace Corporation is working collaboratively with others towards offering equatorial orbit launch capabilities.

PSCA is also planning to support manned spaceflight and is working with Space Perspectives to test the launch of its high-altitude balloon, Spaceship Neptune. Space Perspectives is planning for the high-altitude rides to be available from Kodiak in a few years and this venture will also support Alaska tourism.

The Launch Company, a privately owned company founded by Alaskan Ben Kellie, and headquartered in Anchorage, provides launch support services to launchers. The Launch Company has designed and builds a line of quick disconnect and orbital re-fueling fittings in Palmer, Alaska.

Alaska has an educated workforce with a pioneering spirit. Accustomed to working in remote locations and harsh environments that are logistically challenging to get to and work in, the Alaskan workforce is ingenious, adaptable and resourceful. Since oil was discovered in 1968, workers in the oil industry have worked in the frigid and challenging conditions on Alaska’s North Slope.

However, with oil production in Alaska dropping, Alaska must look to other industries to create new jobs and supplement the revenues generated by the oil and gas industry. By growing the aerospace sector, Alaska hopes to diversify its economic base. Committed to growing the aerospace industry in Alaska, both The Launch Company and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation have established internship programs to help train the next generation of Alaskan engineers who want to work in the commercial space industry.

Like polar bears are superbly adapted for life in the arctic, Alaskans are supremely innovative. Alaskans and Alaska will continue to play a key role in access to space. When looking for the ideal launch site to launch their vehicles, launchers can look to Alaska and Alaskan engineers. With grit and determination, state and privately owned corporations, including new entrants into the aerospace market, will continue to grow the aerospace industry in Alaska.

Jill McLeod serves as a partner at the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney and head of the Firm’s Anchorage Office. McLeod has been helping several companies break into Alaska’s growing rocket launch and aerospace industry.

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