Canada’s decision to launch a satellite to survey objects in orbit over North America extends a U.S.-Canadian collaboration beyond air defenses to a new domain that includes cataloguing space debris and monitoring other nations’ satellites, according to Canadian officials.

Canada’s 130-kilogram Sapphire satellite, scheduled for launch into a sun-synchronous low Earth orbit in 2011, mirrors a similar U.S. effort to enhance its existing Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of ground-based optical and radar sensors by adding space-based assets.

The first dedicated U.S. space-surveillance satellite, the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system Pathfinder, is under construction by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., with a launch currently scheduled for 2009.

Canada and the United States are not alone in demonstrating an increased civil and military interest in determining what orbiting objects are passing over their territory.


also is developing a space-surveillance system, and the European Space Agency is expected to propose its own space-based surveillance architecture to its member governments in late 2008. The European system would add to ground-based space-scanning sensors operated independently by several Western European nations.

Sapphire is under construction by a team led by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia, and including Com Dev of Canada, a manufacturer of satellite electronics, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which specializes in small satellite platforms.

The decision by Canada’s Department of National Defence to build Sapphire under a contract to MDA valued at about 65 million Canadian dollars ($67.3


, followed about two years of proof-of-concept demonstrations using two ground-based optical telescopes.

The two telescopes, located in Suffield, Alberta, and Valcartier, Quebec, entered operation in 2006 and will be upgraded as part of second phase of work to prepare for Sapphire, according to Glen Rumbold, project manager for Canada’s Surveillance of Space Project. The upgraded telescopes, which together will be known as the Ground-Based Optical segment of the Canadian Space Surveillance System,

likely will be phased out in 2011 once Sapphire is operational, Rumbold said in a series of e-mail exchanges with Space News.

Sapphire is intended to operate in a sun-synchronous orbit at between 600 kilometers and 750 kilometers in altitude. A launcher has not been selected, but Rumbold

said the orbit is compatible with having Sapphire launched as a secondary payload aboard a vehicle carrying a larger spacecraft.

Sapphire, which will not be fueled, is expected to operate for at least five years.

Sapphire will be integrated into the U.S. Air Force-managed SSN as a contributing sensor and one of the few in orbit. The United States launched its own demonstrator sensor, called Space-Based Visible, in 1996 aboard the Pentagon’s Midcourse Space Experiment satellite. Operating in a 900-kilometer, near sun-synchronous orbit, the satellite’s principal mission was to test ways of detecting ballistic-missile launches. It was made a part of the SSN in 1998.

said Sapphire, whose design reflects the findings from the two ground-based telescopes, is considered an operational capability, not a technology demonstrator.

“We will be given task lists by the SSN to look at selected RSOs – Resident Space Objects,” Rumbold said. “We will return position data to the SSN for those tasks. The SSN will use those data to update their catalogue. Sapphire will be one of about 30 SSN sensors contributing to the catalog

, but one of the few space-based sensors.”

In the absence of global systems operated by anyone else, the SSN is considered the world standard for surveying both active satellites and space debris. The network includes more than two-dozen optical and radar detectors.

Some of these are dedicated to the SSN. Others, such as Sapphire, are contributing sensors, meaning they are not owned by the U.S. Air Force but are used as part of the network. Collateral sensors, a third category, are those that belong to U.S. Air Force Space Command but have primary missions other than space surveillance.