Supporting operations through space

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Article / March 25, 2014

By: Alycia Coulter

The Canadian Space Operations Centre (CANSpOC) has become integral to supporting Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations in just eighteen months since it was stood up.

According to Major James Pottage, Director of Space Operations for the Canadian Space Operations Cell, the importance of the centre is to create a common operating picture with the Canadian Armed Forces – the data they collect can be used to support operations around the world.

The centre has a twenty-four hour watch of the Canadian Space Operations Cell. It features a systems tool kit consisting of software that allows CANSpOC to monitor satellites in space. They can model space wrecks from other satellites, or inform CAF members deployed on operations when global satellites will not be available in certain regions due to space weather.

CANSpOC can also inform operations on their Global Positioning System (GPS) accuracy, a function often used by the Canadian Armed Forces. “We can provide notification of when the vehicle is going to or may have issues based on the solar weather,” said Director of Space Operations Support for the Canadian Space Operations Centre, Major John Moore.

Upon learning of decreased accuracy in an area through models, CANSpOC can inform assets in a particular region that their GPS capabilities will be reduced for a period of time.

Last year, a model identified decreased GPS accuracy in the Beaufort Sea. CANSpOC was able to communicate to Royal Canadian Navy ships in the area that their accuracy would be diminished for a period of time, demonstrating how CANSpOC can benefit CAF operations by enabling a common operating picture.

This can be done for all operations worldwide, including search and rescue as well as satellite communications. “All of our search and rescue assets, whether they are seaborne or airborne, require GPS,” said Maj Moore. “We can tell them if their accuracy is going to be diminished or not.”

Using satellites in space to support operations involves risk. It is a congested environment that includes space assets of many countries. If satellites stop functioning due to space weather or from collisions between a satellite and other objects, support capabilities may be lost. CANSpOC mitigates this with several backups in order to minimize risks on an operational level as much as possible.

Before the cell was created, there was no way to get information about space activity on a daily basis. CANSpOC previously relied on allied forces for necessary information. They can now actively communicate with other users in the Canadian military as to how space capabilities can be leveraged for the Canadian Armed Forces.  

For example, a space capability that can be leveraged is the Unclassified Remote-sensing Situational Awareness (URSA) system. It allows unclassified imagery of theatre operations to be downloaded from selected satellites to ground stations. Originally, if the satellite was not over Canada, it would have had to be down-linked to a site that could be hours away before being processed and sent back.

Under URSA, the image can be processed and down-linked all at once to a ground station. As the images are unclassified, they can be shared amongst allied partners if needed. “It becomes immediately available for processing and an image analyst thirty minutes later can take the image to the Commander. If they don’t do it that way it could be hours,” said Maj Pottage.  

Moving forward, the challenge facing CANSpOC is training new personnel. There is a steep learning curve that requires six to nine months of training. The goal is to train the incoming personnel in the upcoming months so the centre can have a greater focus on operations and education.

The Joint Space Support Team, two teams of two people, will be able to take their space experience and supply it to field commanders. They will be able to educate brigades in all regions on space capabilities that will benefit their specific operations.

Last year, the Joint Space Support Team participated in exercises as observers. After the team secures equipment, they hope to fully integrate the team into joint exercises this fall or next spring. “[We want to] integrate ourselves into their operations so it is more army, navy, air force and truly becomes joint,” said Maj Moore.

The Canadian Space Operations Centre consists of sixteen personnel and will grow to twenty-four this summer. When all personnel are up-to-date on training and the necessary equipment is procured by next spring, CANSpOC will be in a better position to provide round-the-clock space domain awareness to Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed around the world.

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