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The state of Maine seeks to enter space industry

At the beginning of this month, Maine lawmakers held a public hearing for a new bill, LD 1923, titled “An Act to Establish the Maine Space Corporation.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mattie Daughtry (D. Cumberland) and enjoyed bipartisan support. The Maine Chamber of Commerce also testified in support of the bill, citing strong belief that a Maine Space Corporation would encourage economic development and investment in Maine.

“This will help us scale up our research operations by partnering with industry not only in Maine, but also attract industry from other states to come here and launch from our port,” Dr. Ali Abedi said, UMaine’s associate vice president for research and director of the center for undergraduate research (CUGR).

If the Maine Space Corporation is established, the state will build a launch pad for launching small spacecraft and satellites into polar orbit. Maine is in a unique position as the northeasternmost mainland state. It takes much less energy to launch objects into polar orbit from Maine, while the other famous American launch sites like Cape Canaveral in Florida are better positioned to launch objects into equatorial orbit.

Launching small satellites is a cornerstone of the “new space economy,” which differs from the old space economy which was dominated by giant satellites costing billions of dollars each. Now, smaller satellites – satellites as small as a shoebox or loaf of bread – are more common. These small satellites also reduce space debris, because they burn up upon reentering the atmosphere.

A Maine Space Corporation analysis estimated that by 2030, the aerospace industry could annually increase Maine’s gross domestic product by $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

Abedi says if the bill passes, it will expand Maine’s budding aerospace industry and provide more research opportunities to students and faculty at UMaine. Abedi wrote a formal letter of support for LD 1923 on Feb. 1.

As a land, sea and space grant institution, UMaine has produced some impressive space-related research funded by the Maine Space Grant Consortium (MSGC), an affiliate of NASA’s National Space Grant College Research Experience.

Morgan Stosic, a third-year Ph.D. student in the department of psychology, was awarded one of these grants for her research last fall. 

“I never thought that I could contribute to NASA with the expertise and knowledge that I have,” Stosic said.

Abedi said that all fields of study are applicable to space-related research. Students in STEM can engineer projects, arts students can design them and humanities students can study the civic implications of bringing a space port to Maine. 

“It was really like a cross-functional interdisciplinary work that I think was awesome,” Stosic said of her MSGC research experience.

However, the benefits of space research go further than just UMaine students and faculty.

UMaine is launching a small satellite this June that will be in orbit for 12 years. The data will be transmitted to Orono and will be accessible to students within the University of Maine system, as well as high school students across the state. Abedi’s hope is that Maine farmers and fishermen will also be able to use the data to inform their work.

Aerial data of vegetation can be useful for the agriculture and forestry industries; they will be able to predict rain and melt patterns, identify patterns of disease and better understand which areas need better humidity or soil moisture. Aquaculture and fisheries will be able to use the data to analyze the concentration of phytoplankton and temperature of the water.

Making this type of data more accessible will directly improve research opportunities at UMaine and across the state of Maine. It will also encourage the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that Stosic experienced in her research.

“The idea is that you can get access to very expensive data at almost no cost, pretty much, but you need to do the analytics to improve your operation,” Abedi said.

If the bill is passed, the launchpad will most likely be built from the former military infrastructure in Brunswick or Limestone. The project will potentially take a decade in total and will be expensive for the state, but the hope is that the investment expands on an already dynamic space industry and research hub in the state of Maine.

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