Nov 15, 2008

One year ago, with authorization to ­proceed to the Implementa­tion Phase of a major Surveillance of Space (SofS) Project, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia, began the design, development, launch, and commissioning of DND’s first ­operational satellite – known as Sapphire.

Since the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, thousands of objects such as satellites, defunct spacecraft, rocket bodies, and debris have accumulated in orbits around the Earth. Much of this debris has accumulated due to poor management of the space environment and failure to reduce the equivalent of space ­pollution through proper disposal of spent space assets such as de-orbiting into the Earth’s atmosphere; ensuring that spent rocket motors are vented of propellant (so they don’t subsequently explode ­creating thousands of pieces); and/or parking defunct satellites into an “orbital graveyard.”

Orbital graveyards, however, have their own unique problems. Several satellites, some containing hazardous material, are in such orbits. As these objects pose ­hazards to other satellites, including the manned space shuttle and international space station, it is essential to know their precise orbital location to minimize the probability of collision.

This information is also important for predicting re-entry, so as not to mistake a re-entering object as a missile fired by a hostile nation, or to prepare for any ground emergency activity required to ensure public safety. Debris from the disintegration of Cosmos 954 over Canada’s North, for example, contaminated the Great Slave Lake area of the Northwest Territories in 1978.

Shown above in operation, the Sapphire System is comprised of three main elements: the launch vehicle, the 130 kg satellite (car­rying an optical ­payload), and ground ­segments for monitoring data.

Security & Surveillance
The CF and its allies are subject to observation from space; it is therefore vital to be aware of the locations and characteristics of other satellites to allow appropriate precautionary measures to be taken. This could include alerting CF units as to when and where they may be under observation by a potentially hostile satellite.

Alerts are critical when a satellite of interest has suddenly changed orbit to observe a new area on the globe. Satellites tumble and vary in bright­ness when their control ­system fails; SofS can monitor these “tumblers” to determine if or when satellite control is regained, alerting ground ­personnel to a potentially renewed threat.

The U.S. Air Force Space Command, using their Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of radar and ground based electro-optical sensors, tracks and catalogues about 18,000 Earth-orbiting objects that can pose a major hazard. Countless others are too small to track but remain potentially deadly. Through its partnership in the North ­American Aerospace Defense Com­mand (NORAD) Agree ment, the CF receives data on space objects of national interest.

In January 2007, an anti-satellite test ­surprised the world by demonstrating its ability to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites using an anti-satellite missile. This contrib­uted thousands of additional pieces of space debris in a single episode, and clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of space assets which are critical for ensuring the integrity of key North American ­infra­struc­ture, such as communications, navigation, remote­sensing, and weather monitoring.

The goal of the SofS Project is to ensure that Canada continues to receive priority access to the critical orbital data necessary to protect its national interests. Re-establishing a partnership in the SSN through the integration of the Cana­dian Space Surveillance System (CSSS), and thereby providing a meaningful contribution to the NORAD aerospace warning mission will accomplish this.

The Chief of Force Development is the SofS Project Sponsor, and the Imple­menter is Assistant Deputy Minister (Information Manage­ment). The total Project cost, including the first year of operations, is ­estimated at $96M.

Key components of the CSSS include the Sapphire System, the Sapphire Proces­sing and Scheduling Facility (SPSF), and the Sensor System Operations Centre (SSOC). The Sapphire System consists of a dedicated small and highly autonomous spacecraft that includes a Canadian designed electro-optical payload. The advantage of this space-based sensor over ground-based telescopes is that weather and time of day are not factors affecting observation. Operating in a sun-synchronous circular orbit, at about 750 kms above the Earth, the Sapphire spacecraft will image 360 resident space objects (RSOs) daily in orbits from 6,000 to 40,000 kms in altitude. The ­Sapphire System also includes a ground system element for data transmission, reception, and processing.

The ground system will include a highly automated Spacecraft Control Centre, located in Richmond, British Columbia, which will control the Sapphire spacecraft. Surveil­lance data will be downlinked from ­Sapphire through ground stations located near Abbotsford, B.C. and in Guildford (in the United Kingdom). Following ­processing by the SPSF, the surveillance data will be forwarded to the SSOC by the ground system element in Richmond.

The SSOC, expected to be established in the Canadian Air Defence Sector at North Bay, Ontario, functions as the interface between the Sapphire System and the U.S. SSN Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), which then forwards the information to the Joint Space Operation Center (JSpOC) in Vandenberg, California. Manned by CF military personnel, the SSOC will task the Sapphire System daily and provide surveillance data to the SSN for correlation with data from the multitude of other SSN sensors. This includes orbital parameters required to predict future positions of tracked objects. The SSOC receives daily tasking instructions from the SSN to determine which objects the Sapphire spacecraft is required to observe. The SSOC will be able to interrupt tasks at any time to respond to higher priority requirements for data, and the Sapphire System will have 10 hours in which to make the corresponding observations. Typically, space surveillance data will be delivered to the SSOC within five hours of target observation.

The Sapphire launch is planned for July 2011, and the achievement of full operational capability and in-service handover to the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) is set for December 2011. The Sapphire spacecraft is designed to operate for a minimum of five years. CAS has been designated the Owner and Operator of the initial CSSS capability for its operational life. The Sponsor expects to initiate follow-on projects to sustain the surveillance of space capability.

The SofS Project completed the ­Sapphire System PDR (Preliminary Design Review) at the MDA facility in ­Richmond, British Columbia earlier this year, on 28 February 08. The next major system-level milestone is the System Critical Design Review (CDR), which will take place in April 2009. The final design of Sapphire System elements will be presented at the CDR and, once complete, fabrication will commence. Prior to the system CDR, there will be subsystem PDRs and CDRs, hence a very busy year.

Sapphire will contribute considerably to establishing a significant space capa­bility for Canada. The importance of this and other space initiatives will have ­wide-ranging benefits for national defence and public safety for years to come.
Ken Krukewich (Engineering Mgr), Glen Rumbold (Project Mgr), and Randy Shelly (Sapphire Mgr) are with DND’s Sapphire Project Management Office in Ottawa.
© Frontline Defence 2008