Military Space Quarterly | Canada Eyes “Son of Sapphire” as a Way To Keep Helping U.S. Watch over Space

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian military is looking to build a new electro-optical satellite to allow it to continue providing information to the U.S. space surveillance network beyond 2021.

The project, called Surveillance of Space 2, will be the successor to Canada’s Sapphire satellite that was launched in 2013.

Surveillance of Space 2 was briefly mentioned in a listing of more than 100 future Canadian military procurements that was published June 25. But Canadian military officers have told SpaceNews that the new satellite would be an improvement over Sapphire.

The Sapphire satellite, with its electro-optical sensor, is designed to track space objects in high Earth orbit as part of Canada’s contribution to space situational awareness. Data from Sapphire contribute to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, said Dan Blouin, Canadian Department of National Defence spokesman.

Retired Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Andre Dupuis, who retired July 8 as the Defence Department’s director of space requirements, said the new satellite will be able to detect dimmer objects. “We will be really focusing on operational size satellites, just a bit smaller than what we’re doing now,” he said. “The number of observations that satellite can do per day to feed the Space Surveillance Network would grow. … At the end of the day we expect it to be son of Sapphire [but] better, more capable.”

The Canadian Forces is examining its options for the Surveillance of Space 2 project. Those could include a single satellite combined with a ground optical sensor or a constellation of electro-optical satellites. The system would track man-made objects in Earth orbits having altitudes of 6,000 kilometers or greater.

The preliminary cost estimate for the project ranges from 100 million Canadian dollars ($97 million) to 249 million Canadian dollars. The wide price range reflects the scope of options that might be considered.

Industry will be asked to bid on the project in 2017, with a contract awarded in 2019, according to military officers.

Dupuis said he expects a 2021 launch date to be achievable. “It takes four or five years to build an optical instrument for space,” he said. “I think 2021 is realistic.”

Canada’s military contributed to the surveillance of space mission for decades using ground-based telescopes. But space-based sensors such as Sapphire have a major advantage as ground-based systems can only be used at night and their performance can be limited by weather or excessive clouds.

Sapphire, Canada’s first dedicated military operational satellite, allows the country to further contribute to the U.S.-Canada defense relationship, said analyst Martin Shadwick, a strategic studies professor at York University in Toronto.

Dupuis said Sapphire, and ultimately its successor, complement the more expensive U.S. Space Based Space Surveillance system and allow the U.S. military to use that for more refined roles. “What we’re able to do is to off-load some of the lower-resolution imaging, target tracking, satellite tracking, allowing them to use their exquisite systems on some missions that Sapphire can’t do,” he added.

Sapphire has a five-year mission life, according to the satellite’s prime contractor, MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia.

Canadian military officers, however, expect the satellite to last at least seven years, allowing Surveillance of Space 2 to take over just as the operational life of the other spacecraft is ending.

Sapphire is seen as a key contribution to the U.S.-Canadian defense relationship. In 2012 the Canadian and U.S. militaries entered into a five-year agreement for sharing orbital surveillance data, with Sapphire playing a role in that. At the time of its launch, then-Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay called Sapphire an important milestone in the country’s military space program. He noted that Sapphire “is an essential component of our robust defense for Canada and North America, through NORAD.”

NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which is responsible for protecting North America from aerospace threats, receives information from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.

MDA was awarded a 66 million Canadian dollar contract to build Sapphire in October 2007. The Sapphire contractor team also included Terma A/S of Herlev, Denmark, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Surrey, England.

MDA also has a separate contract, covering a five-year period, to operate the satellite from its Richmond facilities.

MDA spokeswoman Wendy Keyzer declined to comment on whether the firm plans to bid on the Surveillance of Space 2 project.