Sapphire - Canada's First Military Satellite

©MDA

Artist illustration of Sapphire satellite.

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By Chris Gainor

Canada's Department of National Defence (DND) will upgrade Canada's space surveillance capabilities when it launches Canada's first operational military satellite, Sapphire.

Sapphire is tentatively scheduled for launch in June atop an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in southern India. It will form the heart of the Canadian Space Surveillance System, which will assist the United States Space Surveillance Network.

The prime contractor for Sapphire is MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, B.C., which signed a $65 million contract with DND in October 2007. MDA won another $11.7 million contract from DND last year to operate Sapphire for five years. The Sapphire contractor team also includes COM DEV International of Cambridge, Ontario, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Surrey, England.

The 2007 contract for Sapphire came a few months after China destroyed one of its own weather satellites using a missile, leaving a large amount of debris in low Earth orbit and putting other nations on notice that their commercial and military space assets were vulnerable to attack.

"Canada is increasingly reliant on space assets," DND Communications Advisor Daniel Blouin told Space Quarterly, adding that Sapphire will "re-establish the Canadian contribution to surveillance in space."

Sapphire is to be launched atop the same Indian PSLV-C20 launch vehicle along with other Canadian satellites including NEOSSat, the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, and a nanosatellite for the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, CanX-3a BRITE.

NEOSSAT is a Canadian satellite that will be the first space telescope dedicated to the search for near-Earth asteroids. NEOSSat is the result of a university-industry collaboration and will spend half the time looking for these small interplanetary objects that could potentially impact the Earth and cause great damage. NEOSSat will spend the other half of its time searching for satellites and space debris in orbit around the Earth in a research project sponsored by a DND agency, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

Both Sapphire and NEOSSat will be placed into near-polar Sun synchronous orbits between 750 and 800 km above the Earth's surface, and both will be looking for satellites and space debris in various orbits. Sapphire, which is about a cubic metre in size, will track objects from 6.000 km high up to 40,000 km high, orbits used by satellites providing communications, weather, security, search and rescue, navigation and even banking services.

Blouin said space assets are becoming more important to the Canadian Forces, noting that they used communications and other space assets during recent deployments in Afghanistan and Libya. "All this doesn't do you much good if a satellite is hit with space debris," he added.

While NEOSSAT will be developing new technologies for satellite and debris detection, Sapphire will use a more conventional electro-optical sensor system that will obtain time-tagged images of objects in space. This data will be sent to the Canadian Forces' Sensor Systems Operations Centre in North Bay, Ontario, and then onto the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Canada's involvement in space surveillance goes back to 1958, when Canada and the United States signed the agreement that led to the creation of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and the two nations built radar stations in Canada to warn of possible Soviet attacks from the air.

In the 1960s, the Canadian Forces set up Baker-Nunn cameras at Cold Lake, Alberta, and St. Margarets, New Brunswick, to track objects in space. The cameras ceased operations in 1993 after the end of the Cold War.

In 2005, the Canadian Forces began Project Polar Epsilon, a space-based wide-area surveillance program covering Canada's arctic and ocean approaches. Polar Epsilon is based on the use of data from Canada's RADARSAT-2 satellite, which was launched in 2007, and this work is projected to continue with three satellites planned for launch later in this decade under the RADARSAT Constellation mission.

While the RADARSATs and NEOSSAT have been built by or with the cooperation of the Canadian Space Agency, Sapphire will be the Canadian Forces' first operational satellite.

Canada's first two satellites, Alouette 1 and 2, launched in 1962 and 1965, were communications research satellites built by the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment near Ottawa, which was later absorbed by the Department of Communications. Sapphire therefore represents a return to space for Canada's military, this time involving a move from research to operational work.