Sapphire satellite in space

Article / July 1, 2013 / Project number: 2013-07-01

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) achieved a significant milestone in Space Operations on May 29. The Sapphire System officially achieved its Commissioning Results Review and marked the entry into service of Canada’s first dedicated operational military satellite.

“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,” said Defence Minister Peter MacKay. “Our government believes that this satellite is an essential component of our robust defence for Canada and North America, through NORAD.”

This month, the satellite entered an Operational Test and Evaluation phase to confirm CAF personnel, hardware, and software are ready to commence operations. The culmination of this phase will be a validation by the US Air Force Space Command that Sapphire meets the certification standards for entry into the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Sapphire is expected to be ready to begin contributing to the US SSN by the end of July. Sapphire will be the primary component of what will be known as the Canadian Space Surveillance System (CSSS).

The role of the CSSS is to provide space observational data essential to the protection of Canadian satellites – a key component of Canada’s sovereignty and national security. The CSSS currently consists of two major elements: the Sapphire satellite and the supporting ground operations and control facilities.

Sapphire Capabilities

The Sapphire satellite is able to detect and collect observations on space objects including other operational satellites, unstable or defunct satellites and other space debris. This increased space situational awareness provides knowledge of the spaceflight environment as a whole, but is very useful for assessing the intent of adversarial space assets that could pose a risk to CAF elements; thereby enabling commanders to account for potential space threats during their operational planning. The detection and tracking of space objects, particularly space debris, helps predict and could prevent potential satellite collisions. As well, accurately predicting the re-entry of a potentially hazardous satellite may help safeguard human life.

The Sapphire ground facilities are located at two locations and each has distinct responsibilities and functions. Flying the satellite and ensuring that all of the required support and technical functions are accomplished takes place in Richmond, BC. This segment of the Sapphire System is composed of a Spacecraft Control Centre (SCC), a Satellite Processing and Scheduling Facility (SPSF), and the Sapphire Simulator. The SCC serves to control and monitor the Satellite while the SPSF is responsible for data transmission, reception, and processing. To send and receive the data, Sapphire will use two ground stations; the primary station (DND-owned) located in Abbotsford, BC and a secondary ground station owned/operated by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd in the United Kingdom. The raw satellite data is processed by the SPSF and is then sent to the Space Systems Operations Centre (SSOC) at 22 Wing North Bay.

Royal Canadian Air Force personnel at the SSOC coordinate and provide the operational direction and tasking for the Sapphire satellite. They work in conjunction with the contractor facility at Richmond and the US Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). The SSOC will relay tasking messages from the JSpOC to the Sapphire System daily and provides observational data back to the JSpOC for correlation with observations from other SSN sensors; thus assisting with the accuracy of the space catalogue which is comparable to a list of satellite flight plans. The JSpOC is the US organization responsible for operating the global SSN to maintain a catalogue of all tracked space objects (currently tracking over 23,000 space objects).

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