Canada To Use Radarsat-2 To Track Ships in Arctic
Defense News Correspondent
posted: 29 August 2005
11:04 am ET

When Canada’s Radarsat-2 satellite is launched next summer, the Canadian Forces will enter a new era of space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

For the first time, the military will use a satellite to conduct regular surveillance of the maritime approaches to Canada and its Arctic territories. Dubbed Polar Epsilon, the Canadian Forces’ use of Radarsat-2 to monitor 15 million square kilometers of ocean as well as the country’s northern region is the first of two major space-based ISR systems the military will be involved with over the next four years.

A second satellite, known as the Sapphire mission, is designed to feed information into the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and could be launched as early as 2009.

The main requirement of Polar Epsilon will be to detect, identify and track vessels, said Canadian Navy Cmdr. Mark Walker, director of the Joint Space Project, which includes the country’s military space ISR programs. The project will develop specialized algorithms to allow Radarsat-2 to extract ship wake information as well as the heading, speed and length of a vessel.

Polar Epsilon also will develop a specialized ship-detection beam mode for Radarsat-2, which will enable smaller vessels to be detected over large areas.

Walker said the information will help military personnel determine the intent of a ship long before it can approach North American shores.

Surveillance of the Northwest Passage in the country’s Arctic region also is a key objective because global warming is expected to increase the period that waterway is free of ice and open to maritime traffic, he added. The only practical way to monitor the passage is from space, Walker noted.

For that mission, Polar Epsilon is developing software algorithms that can distinguish ships from ice in the radar imagery. At the newly developed Joint Information and Intelligence Fusion Capability center in Ottawa, a Polar Epsilon operator will use “change detection” techniques — comparing data from one pass of the satellite to the next — to survey Arctic territory as well as areas of interest where the Canadian Forces are deployed globally, Walker said.

Although there will be commercial demand for Radarsat-2’s data, Walker said he doesn’t expect that to conflict with Epsilon’s military mission.

Once the data is gathered, the information will be used, if warranted, to cue more costly reconnaissance assets such as optical satellites, patrol aircraft or vessels, or ground reconnaissance troops.


Polar Epsilon emerged after a three-year study in which the Canadian Forces examined using commercial space-imaging satellites, as well as the Radarsat-2 program, for sovereignty and surveillance missions. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, British Columbia, built and will operate the satellite.

“We homed in on radar satellites in the study because Canada is a world leader in the development of synthetic aperture radar,” Walker said. Walker noted that much of Canada is obscured by clouds or in darkness about 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, which precluded optical imaging satellites from being selected.

“As an all-weather day/night polar orbiting radar, Radarsat-2 inherently offers a high revisit [rate] in remote northern sea and land areas which are cloud-covered or in darkness most of the year,” Walker said.

Radarsat-2, which will have a seven-year life, will collect radar images at spatial resolutions ranging from 3 meters to 100 meters with nominal swath widths ranging from 10 kilometers to 500 kilometers. It will provide coverage of vessels approaching North America out to nearly 1,850 kilometers from Canada’s shores.

The Canadian government has spent 500 million Canadian dollars ($400 million) on Radarsat-2’s development in exchange for access to its imagery. MacDonald Dettwiler’s contribution is about 90 million Canadian dollars.

In addition, the Canadian Forces will spend 59.7 million Canadian dollars on the Polar Epsilon segment of Radarsat-2. Walker said that, as part of the Polar Epsilon project, the military will establish two Radarsat-2 ground stations in 2006 and 2007, one on each coast.

The plan is to co-locate the ground stations with the Marine Security Operations centers the Canadian Forces plans to develop to bring together defense and civilian agencies involved in monitoring the country’s coastal regions.

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.