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Incoming - warnings of trouble from space

OTTAWA — With the international community on high-alert following an unprecedented satellite collision earlier this year, the Canadian Forces are working to re-establish a national space capability that could help protect Canadian satellites from orbital debris and other potential threats.


The groundbreaking project tasked with this endeavour is the Sapphire system - an optical surveillance satellite designed to track objects in deep space.

"The concept is not a complicated one," says Capt. Paul Maskell, project manager for Sapphire. "The difference here is that we're providing the sensor up in orbit."

The cube-shaped satellite will be the first of its kind developed outside the United States, and will be Canada's first significant contribution to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) in two decades.

This is a graphic showing a preliminary model of the Sapphire satellite
A preliminary model of Canada's Sapphire system, The satellite will be about one-metre cubed. It will be presented to the Department of National Defence for approval in May 2009.

Although it will not launch until 2011, officials with the Department of National Defence (DND) say the project is quickly approaching an important stage in its development.

With its critical design review scheduled for May, Sapphire's prime contractor - MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates - will present its design plan to the DND for approval.

If there are any discrepancies then it is back to the drawing board, Maskell says. Otherwise there is a green light to proceed with fabrication at the David Florida Laboratories in Ottawa.

"From there we start cutting metal and building parts, getting ready to fit them together and test them," the 36-year old says.

After joining the Canadian Forces at the age of 17 as a navigator on the Sea King helicopter, Maskell completed a post-graduate degree in space systems a decade ago.

Before Sapphire, he spent four years at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado - inside the lion's den of space surveillance - working for the U.S. Air Force Space Command.

Tapping the source

Maskell says Sapphire will help re-establish a lost link with the U.S. in the critical area of space surveillance.

Canada has a memorandum of understanding with the U.S., he says, which will give the DND assured access to information regarding the orbits of every space object being tracked by the U.S. military.

With Sapphire's price tag hovering around $96 million, the Canadian Forces are sparing no expense in the pursuit of improved space situational awareness - a valuable commodity in an age of improved access to outer space for peripheral nations.

"One specific area of interest for Canada is the protection of its space assets," says Maskell. "I mean we are talking multi-multi-million dollar satellites."

'Now we're realizing the more stuff we put up there, the more stuff we'll have to contend with in the future.'

From a civilian viewpoint, the maintenance of satellites is integral to many aspects of modern society. Cell phones, bank machines, global positioning systems, and weather forecasts all rely on satellites.

From a defence perspective, the need to safeguard satellites is equally pressing. In combat, the Canadian Forces use satellites for surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, firing precision guided munitions, navigation and communication, and aerospace warnings.

Military satellites are the eyes and ears of troops on the ground, and the protection of these assets - either from accidental collision with debris or intentional sabotage at the hands of hostile nations - is vital, says defence analyst James Fergusson.

"We don't know where the future lies in terms of military use of outer space," he says. "It is important to know what's going on up there. It is no different from how we want to know what is going on within our national territory, our national airspace, or the waters around us."

Fergusson, who is the director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, says Canada must be able to identify threats before they materialize.

Space junk

Since the dawn of the space age, thousands of objects have accumulated in orbits around the Earth and now pose a serious risk to satellites.

Brad Wallace, head of space surveillance efforts with Defence Research and Development Canada, says space surveillance keeps satellites from crashing into debris and each other.

An artists rendition of space debris around the earth from a view in outer space
A computer generated image of all the objects in Earth's orbit currently being tracked. Ninety-five per cent of the objects are pieces debris.

"Think of it as air-traffic control for outer space," he says.

Unfortunately this function does not always work.

On Feb. 10, a derelict Russian military satellite collided with a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite in the skies over Siberia. The result was a catastrophic smash-up generating thousands of pieces of new debris.

This latest collision has people talking, and Wallace says that is exactly what needs to happen. "Now we're realizing the more stuff we put up there, the more stuff we'll have to contend with in the future."

The last time space debris garnered this much international attention was in January 2007, after China destroyed a defunct weather satellite with an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile.

Space is an international domain and there should be cooperation to help prevent future increases in space pollution, he says.

For the time being, however, it's a problem that lacks a clear-cut solution. Space surveillance is the only line of defence against debris, and Sapphire will be Canada's contribution to the cause.

Frontpage photo courtesy of MacDonald Detwiller and Associates Ltd.

Related Links

Are Canadian satellites at risk? Read more.

Learn more about the history of space debris.

What is NASA doing to mitigate the problem? Read More.

Discover more about Canada's space history



Sapphire: Facts and figures

Cost: The estimated cost is $96 million

Weight: 130 kilograms

Contractor: MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, based in Richmond, B.C.

The mission: Sapphire will operate in a sun-synchronous circular orbit approximately 750 km above the Earth. On the ground, multiple control centres will process the data, monitor the satellite, and act as an interface between Sapphire and the U.S. SSN. It will have a lifespan of five years.

Its capabilities: Sapphire can monitor more than 360 obkects per day and can image objects as far away as 40,000 km in altitude.

The advantage of a satellite: Space-based sensors are not limited by inclement weather or the day/night cycle, and can therefore operate around the clock.

Launch date: Summer 2011

Source: Department of National Defence


Sapphire and missile defence

Background: In 2005, former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin declined an invitation to participate in a bilateral ground-based ballistic missile defence program with the U.S. However, Canada's stance on missile defence remains unclear. Through its membership in NATO Canada has been actively involved in missile defence activities.

Sapphire's role: According to defence analyst James Fergusson, Sapphire has potentiial ballistic missile defence applications

As an optical sensor it can distinguish missiles from other pieces of debris that aren't immediately recognizable, and can therefore help facilitate early warnings, he says.

"There have been numerous cases in the past ... where a spent rocket body suddenly starts to re-enter the atmosphere, dropping out of orbit, and forming a path that makes it look like a missile aimed at North America."

Fergusson says sapphire could help reduce these mix ups, but says it remains to be seen doesn't whether it will be used for this.

Source: James Fergusson, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba


Sapphire and space junk

Tracking the junk: The U.S. Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking more than 17,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimetres. NASA estimates there are an additional 100,000 pieces of debris between one and 10 cm - and smaller than that, the number of pieces of debris is well into the millions.

Measuring space debris is accomplished by conducting ground-based and space-based observations of the orbital debris environment. Data is acquired using ground-based radars and optical telescopes, space-based telescopes, and analysis of spacecraft surfaces returned from space.

The U.S. SSN consists of approximately 25 ground-based radars and telescopes. It has only had one space-based sensor to date - the space-based visible sensor, which was carried into orbit aboard the Midcourse Space Experiment satellite

Weird junk: Over the 50 plus years of space exploration, some interesting objects have accumulated in space. Check out this blog post from WIRED.


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