Backgrounder - Space Situational Awareness and the Sapphire Satellite

BG 12.056 - October 18, 2012

As a three-ocean nation with the world’s longest coastline, the size of our country has necessitated Canada to make significant investments in space technology.  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 challenges associated with the necessity to do so. 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 will continue to increase, which itself would 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 22 000 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 Forces 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

Although Canada has performed ground-based space surveillance for decades, the Canadian government is now poised to launch its first dedicated operational military satellite. Called Sapphire, this electro-optical sensor system underscores Canada’s commitment to making a meaningful and functional contribution to the SSN.

In short, Sapphire will provide tracking data on earth-orbiting space objects.

Scheduled to be launched in the coming months by the Indian Space Research Organization, Sapphire will collect observations of deep-space objects and contribute that information to the SSN. 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 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, is under $100 million. This modest investment will safeguard billions of dollars of North American assets and interests in space.