Company proposes launching rockets off Jonesport
A bluShift biofuel rocket launches from the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in Aroostook County, Maine, on Jan. 31, 2021. Credit: The Knack Factory/bluShift Aerospace via AP

A Brunswick-based aerospace firm is considering an island off Jonesport as a launch site for multiple missions to launch small satellites into orbit, but the town wants time to evaluate what it would mean for residents.

To give town officials that time, voters are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the high school to consider a temporary 6-month ban on aerospace facilities. The moratorium, which could be renewed after 180 days, would give the town some time to possibly develop and adopt an ordinance for regulating local rocket launches. A second informational meeting will be held on Thursday.

According to Jonesport officials, bluShift Aerospace is eyeing Water Island, just west of Mistake Island and Moose Peak Lighthouse, as a site to conduct multiple rocket launches over the next several years. The small island, roughly 1,500 feet long, is nearly a mile due east of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Wass Island Preserve.

Sascha Deri, CEO of bluShift, wouldn’t confirm a specific location being considered by the company, but said it is looking to lease a site, rather than to purchase one. A site in Jonesport is being considered, Deri confirmed. He and other bluShift officials plan to be in Jonesport on Thursday to talk to local residents about what bluShift wants to do. 

A town hall-style informational meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the high school.

BluShift, which conducted Maine’s first-ever commercial launch of a rocket in Limestone on Jan. 31 of this year, has been looking at locations along the Down East coast between Bar Harbor and Cutler for a while, Deri said. The site in Jonesport is “the best option we’ve encountered so far.”

“We’re open to suggestions,” Deri said.

He added that bluShift supports Jonesport’s moratorium idea so officials and residents have time to learn more about a potential rocket launch site in case the company decides to pursue one in Jonesport — which also is where Dutch firm Kingfish Maine hopes to construct a $110 million land-based fish farm that would produce approximately 13 million pounds of yellowtail each year.

 “For us, it has to be a win-win for the community and for bluShift,” Deri said.

The company’s goal is to provide launching services to other companies looking to place small satellites known as “cubesats” into low orbits that cross over Earth’s poles, rotating north and south instead of following an east-west route parallel to the equator, Deri said. Such satellites are roughly the size of a large shoe box and can be used for providing internet coverage to remote parts of the globe, for surface imaging of Earth or for tracking cargo ships.

The market for launching them is projected to be $28 billion in the next decade, Deri said.

“We’re not launching Cape Canaveral-size rockets,” he said, referring to the launch site in Florida where NASA astronauts have blasted off into orbit. “There’s this growing market to launch small satellites.”

Deri said that aiming for orbits over Earth’s poles requires launching rockets in a southerly direction, and that launching over the ocean is a safer practice. Maine’s eastern coast is well suited for this with hundreds of miles of open ocean, he said. There currently is no launch site geared for small satellites on the East Coast.

BluShift wants to find a launch location where the noise generated by the rocket at liftoff — which he said would be comparable to a foghorn — will not have undue impacts on residents or wildlife. The company’s target niche is to launch relatively small rockets that are up to roughly 80 feet tall and run on biofuels and then fall back to earth with parachutes.

“That’s kind of our thing,” Deri said of trying to develop more eco-friendly rocket technology. “You could literally eat [our rocket fuel] and nothing bad would happen to you.”

Deri, who grew up in Orland, said he is keen on operating an aerospace firm in Maine and on inspiring young Mainers to pursue careers in science. He said that a bluShift launch site on the Down East coast could handle upwards of 80 launches in the next decade, and could employ 35 to 40 people in the company’s local operations.

“We’re trying to engage as much as we can, but we don’t want to announce anything until we can do this the right way,” he said of identifying and securing a launch site.

Frank Smith, a local lobsterman and chair of the Jonesport planning board, said the board asked selectmen to schedule a vote on a possible moratorium so the town could develop an ordinance geared at regulating commercial rocket launches.

Smith said he has no issue with bluShift launching rockets along the Down East coast, but said he wants to learn more about possibly having to restrict access on launch days to the waters within a half mile of Water Island. 

“I’ve fished that area, as a matter of fact,” Smith said. “I’ve nothing against what [Deri] wants to do, but the area he would launch off of is a very busy area” that in summer is popular with both local fishermen and pleasure craft.

“We don’t have a rocket ordinance, and without one we can’t really tell him ‘no,’” Smith said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....