Space Situational Awareness and the Sapphire Satellite

Backgrounder / January 30, 2014 / Project number: BG 14.002

As a three-ocean nation with the world’s longest coastline, Canada’s size has made significant investments in space technology necessary.  Managing security, transportation, communication, search and rescue, mapping, surveying, weather forecasting, and infrastructure across these distances is an extraordinarily complex endeavour, and the use of satellites greatly reduces some of the associated challenges. Reliance on space is ubiquitous in both civilian and military life – everyday technologies such as global positioning systems (GPS) and bank machines rely on signals travelling through space.

As more nations develop capabilities to operate in space, there is a steady increase in the amount of satellites and space debris orbiting the Earth. As the space environment becomes more crowded with inoperable satellites and other debris, the risk of collision between space objects continues to increase. Collisions create more debris and could eventually render some orbits unusable.

Just as having a solid understanding of what is happening on the land, sea and in the air is important, Canada needs to be aware of what is happening in space. The term for this understanding is Space Situational Awareness, or SSA.

SSA partnership

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) catalogues and tracks more than 23 000 man-made objects in space. Given the reliance of Canada on space technology, there is a clear need for our country to protect its critical space assets and infrastructure.

On May 4, 2012, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Air Force. This military partnership will help increase Canada’s awareness of where objects are located in space, enabling us to reduce the risk of loss of critical space capabilities, such as telecommunications, weather satellites, earth observation satellites, and GPS.

Sapphire satellite

On February 25, 2013, Sapphire, Canada’s first dedicated operational military satellite was successfully launched in Sriharikota, India by the Indian Space Research Organization. The primary contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), built and developed the Sapphire system following an open, transparent, and fair competition at a cost of under $66 million. The total project cost, which includes the cost to build and develop the satellite and budgeted costs for ground infrastructure, the operations centre, and personnel costs, was 96.4 million. The program has delivered all required capabilities for approximately $10.1 million less than its original budget. This modest investment will help to safeguard billions of dollars of North American assets and interests in space.

Sapphire is a small satellite that collects observations of objects orbiting between 6000 and 40 000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface using an electro-optical sensor system. The Sapphire satellite is a key element of the Canadian space surveillance system and will contribute to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. It will provide accurate, timely data to the Department of National Defence (DND) and will be used to update the U.S. Satellite Catalogue. Sapphire will contribute to the network by monitoring thousands of space objects on a 24-hour basis, and will provide daily data on objects of interest.

On November 22, 2013, the CAF Sapphire Satellite completed its operational testing and certification and began a five-year operational mission during which it will be a contributing sensor to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. These observations will be sent to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, where they will be added to data provided by a number of different sensors. The Spacetrack Catalogue currently contains information on more than 23 000 man-made objects in space that are larger than 10 cm in diameter, and is used to monitor and maintain safety in space. By providing surveillance of space from space, Sapphire will provide a meaningful and functional contribution to this critical requirement.

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