VICTORIA, British Columbia — The upcoming launch of a Canadian military satellite onboard an Indian rocket will mark the first time the Canadian Forces have had their own spacecraft in orbit, an important milestone for the fledgling space program.

The rocket, scheduled for launch Feb. 25, will carry Canada’s first dedicated military operational satellite, called Sapphire, as well as a second Canadian microsatellite that has both a civilian science and military mission.

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

The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., receives its information from that network.

The sensor also would provide information to the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces about the location of foreign satellites as well as on the whereabouts of orbiting debris, which could pose a hazard to satellites and other spacecraft. In addition, it would allow Canada to gather data about objects, such as space junk, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

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

The second spacecraft, called the Near-Earth Object Space Surveillance Satellite(NEOSSat), will be the world’s first space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites. It is a joint project by the Canadian Space Agency and the Department of National Defence’s science organization, Defence Research and Development Canada.

Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay has called Sapphire an important milestone in the country’s military space program. The military currently receives imagery from the government’s Radarsat-2 satellite and will be able to obtain surveillance data from the Radarsat Constellation Mission expected to be launched in 2017. It also is participating in the U.S. military’s Wideband Global Satcom program.

But defense analyst Martin Shadwick said Sapphire is an entirely Canadian military initiative.

“It gives the Canadian Forces a foot in the door with its own space asset as well as allowing them to bring something to the table in the U.S.-Canada defense relationship,” said Shadwick, a strategic studies professor at York University in Toronto. Last year the Canadian and the U.S. militaries entered into a five-year agreement for sharing orbital surveillance data. The Sapphire satellite will be placed in a near-polar sun-synchronous orbit, approximately 800 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

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

MDA was awarded the 66 million Canadian dollar ($64 million) 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.

Norman Hannaford, director of MDA’s space and remote sensing business unit, said the company will be operating the satellite from its Richmond facilities for the Department of National Defence.

The company will receive lists of objects the military is interested in observing, he noted.

“We download the data and we process here in the MDA facility and then we output data from our facility which goes into [the Department of National Defence’s] space systems operations center in North Bay, Ontario,” Hannaford explained. “And from there they provide their input down into the space surveillance network in the U.S.”

While much of the focus has been on Sapphire, NEOSSat is also contributing to the military mission, said William Harvey, the Canadian Space Agency’s NEOSSat senior project manager.

“We actually compliment Sapphire in one sense that we could also double up on the surveillance of space mission, which is to characterize the distribution of man-made objects in space,” he said. “That is not only satellites but the large debris like booster phases.”

NEOSSat could also be brought into play to operate in tandem with Sapphire, bringing in additional information about a target, he said. Harvey said at the same time NEOSSat is showing Department of National Defence planners that “not all things have to be big satellites.”

The satellite was built by Microsat Systems Canada Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario, with support from Spectral Applied Research, Richmond Hill, Ontario, and Com Dev.

The 65-kilogram spacecraft is equipped with a 15-centimeter optical telescope and will orbit approximately 800 kilometers above the Earth.

The cost of the project is around 25 million Canadian dollars, Harvey said.

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.