VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada’s defense department unveiled its first operational military satellite Oct. 18 as it made final preparations for the spacecraft to be launched in December on an Indian rocket.

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.

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), Richmond, British Columbia, won the prime contract on the 66 million Canadian dollar ($67 million) program from the Department of National Defence (DND). The Sapphire contractor team also includes 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 Sapphire is scheduled to be launched Dec. 12 onboard India’s PLSV rocket. That will be followed by a three-month commissioning period.

“Our customer is keen to see this move into operation,” Hannaford said. “It’s driven by real operational needs.”

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

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that Sapphire “is an essential component of our robust defence for Canada and North America, through NORAD,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“As space continues to be an important part of the global security environment, the observational data from the Sapphire satellite will be integral to increasing our ability to protect Canadian and allies’ assets and interests in space,” he added.

MacKay hosted a news conference at the Canadian Space Agency’s David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa, Ontario, Oct. 18 as a “send-off” for Sapphire.

Hannaford said Sapphire has a five-year mission life. MDA also has a separate contract, covering a five-year period, to operate the satellite from its Richmond facilities, he added.

“We get tasking lists from the DND so they will specify a set of objects which they are interested in observing,” Hannaford explained.

Canada is also using ground-based telescopes for its space surveillance program. The two telescopes, located in Suffield, Alberta and Valcartier, Quebec, are expected to be phased out once Sapphire is operational.

Space-based sensors have a major advantage over those on the ground. Ground-based telescopes, for instance, can be used only at night and their performance can be limited by weather or excessive clouds. Hannaford noted that Sapphire will be one of the few space surveillance systems based in space. “This is a fairly new domain for the space industry in general,” he added.

The Sapphire satellite will be placed in a near-polar sun-synchronous orbit, approximately 800 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

Canada and the United States have also entered into a five-year agreement for sharing orbital surveillance data. The initial space situational awareness data sharing agreement took effect May 4, according to the U.S. Air Force. It was signed by Heidi Grant, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force for international affairs, and Vice Admiral Bruce Donaldson, Canada’s vice chief of the defense staff.

Sapphire will play a role in that agreement.

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.