Group seeks to launch low-orbit satellites in Michigan

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Michigan is preparing for liftoff.

The Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association says it has obtained more than $30 million in pledges from investors to create a launch site in Northern Michigan for low-orbit satellites and hypersonic technology research.

Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association.

If plans are successful, said Gavin Brown, executive director of the Sterling Heights-based association, the $50 million-$75 million facility called the Michigan Launch Initiative could make Michigan a leader in the research, development and operations of the technology, create more than 1,000 jobs and contribute hundreds of millions to the state economy.

"When I was traveling to different aerospace summit meetings and conferences," Brown said, "it came up repeatedly that Cape Canaveral and bases out in California didn't have the capacity to keep up with the demand. Upon doing the research, we found that Michigan would be able to meet the demand."

A consortium that includes the association, the U.S. Defense Department, public universities and private companies is hoping to start rocket launches in the second quarter of 2022, subject to federal licensing approval.

As demand for connectivity and transmitting data in real time accelerates, the need for low-orbit satellites has grown in recent years. From 2007 to date in 2018, more than 1,200 small satellites were launched. Over the next decade, Brown said, more than 7,000 are expected to take flight.

The industry, said Mike Carey, founder of Traverse City-based ATLAS Space Operations Inc., which is a member of the consortium and provides satellite operation services, has grown 500 percent over the past few years.

As a result, launch sites in Florida and California are being overwhelmed, causing other states such as Colorado and Oklahoma to get into the business. Rocket manifests for satellites like seats on a passenger plane, he said, are filling up two years ahead of time.

"The demand is outpacing their infrastructure," Carey said. "We have the opportunity to put Michigan in a top tier position as a space state."

Two companies already have expressed intent to use the Michigan launch facility. The association said it expects the facility to have 22-25 launches per year, generating revenue of $15 million each, or $375 million annually. Through technology, Brown said, the goal is to provide launch services at rates 30 percent less than what is available now.

The site also would include a 24/7 command center to track satellite operations and present new tourism opportunities.

"It's exciting; you could experience what a launch like this about," Brown said. "It's beautiful, actually. The closer you get, you can feel the thrust of the engines. It's something that only gets to be observed on certain spots on this earth. There are thousands that travel to see them."

Brown lauded Michigan's abundance of barren land, already-existing restricted airspace and technical expertise as positioning it well for the industry. He said the project would help the state retain the hundreds of students that graduate from Michigan colleges and universities in aerospace engineering and similar fields

"We can train those students in the state of Michigan to be employed in Michigan," he said.

Additionally, the hope is to leverage Michigan's strength in the automotive sector to create a launch site that uses fully mechanized factory-style assembly.

The group is working to make the facility run off solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Winter weather contributed to the closure of launch pads in the Upper Peninsula during the early 1970s. Brown said technological innovations have made it possible to do these low-orbit launches year-round.

Brown said the consortium next week begins its site-selection process, which is expected to take three to six months. He said any community "north of the 45th parallel" with hundreds of acres for the project is being considered.

The association hopes to secure all funding by the end of the third quarter of 2019, obtain permits and environmental approval by the end of the third quarter of 2020 and break ground on construction during the second quarter of 2021.

Brown said he was unsure at this point if the public-private partnership would need to seek government incentives for the project.

"But the state would be wise," he said, "to look at this as a long-term contribution to the economic growth of both the state and our population."