Sapphire in the Sky: Space Domain Awareness Top Priority for Canadian Space Commander

Canada Sapphire satellite for monitoring space objects (Illustration: MDA)

WASHINGTON — Replacing Canada’s only aging space-tracking satellite is the military’s top modernization priority new organization of space operations, according to its commanding officer, Brig. General Mike Adamson.

To improve space domain knowledge is “where I’m sitting from, the most important” of the 3rd Canadian Space Division’s three major efforts to improve Canada’s space capabilities, he told Breaking Defense in an interview Friday – echoing the feelings of his American counterpartChief of Space Command, General Jim Dickinson.

The space division rose in July as a specialized command under the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The goal, Adamson said, was to highlight that space, rather than a “novelty,” is central to future warfare.

“It’s almost like it’s taken [space] came out of some kind of back office… introduced him and said, “You know, this is something that’s critically important to everything we do. You know, we have to pay attention to what’s happening in the field. We have to invest in the field ourselves. We need to align with our allies in what each does,” he said. “And that just adds a bit of extra gravity to the whole thing.”

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Brig. General Mike Adamson. (US Space Force Facebook page)

He said the new force structure responds to Canada’s 2017 defense policy statement that “protecting and defending the space domain” is a key role for the country’s military.

“It took us a few years to chew that and kind of figure out, ‘What does it mean, to defend? “, He said. “Are we only concerned about Canadian Forces assets and mutual protection? Does this include our allies? As we blur the lines between commercial operators in this field who provide effects for national security, are we defending and protecting them as well?And the answer would be yes.

The policy document, called “Strong, Secure, Committed,” also sent a message to the Canadian public and its allies that there are no “political barriers” to the use of force by the military in the accomplishment of the protection and defense mission.

“It also signaled that in this effort there was nothing that we weren’t willing to discuss in terms of capability – be it surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, space control – and it basically opened the door “for the national audience to understand that there are no political barriers to what we could do,” he said.

While there are “some things we probably won’t get into, like active kinetic weapon systems,” he added, there are “reversible effects” systems that we might be interested in.

Modernization Priorities: Sapphire, RADARSAT, Arctic Satcom

Adamson noted that, like the U.S. Army’s SPACECOM, the 3rd Space Division is an operational command and has no direct budgetary authority. (The acquisition is instead the bailiwick of the RCAF Air and Space Force Development Office.)

“I’m really focused on operations,” he said. “I am the Joint Force Space Component Commander. So basically I’m the guy responsible for providing space effects to our fighters at home and abroad.

But also like SPACECOM, it has direct input into shaping the requirements for new capabilities to be developed with the approximately C$14 billion (approximately US$10.4 billion) that the government plans to invest in capabilities. space over the next two decades. This investment, he said, targets three key priorities: the replacement of Sapphire, the development of a new constellation to replace the RADARSAT remote sensing satellites; and improving satellite communications in the Arctic.

Sapphire ‘Beyond End of Life’

The Sapphire space domain reconnaissance satellite was launched into low Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 773 kilometers in 2013. Prime contractor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) which integrated the satellite’s SSTL-150 bus produced by Surrey Satellite Technology and its optical payload produced by COM DEV International.

The Canadian Ministry of Defense announced in 2020 a replacement plan for Sapphire under a project called “Space Surveillance 2” worth between 100 and 249 million Canadian dollars (approximately 78 to 193 million US dollars). This project “will consist of a ground segment and an in-orbit segment,” Adamson said.

“Sapphire has done an invaluable service for us. He is beyond the end of life, but continues to drift away like the Energizer Bunny. And, every day he has a hiccup, I say, ‘Not today, not today,'” he said.

Additionally, Canada is the only U.S. ally to own and operate a space surveillance satellite, Adamson noted, with Sapphire serving as a node in Space Command. Space Surveillance Network radars and telescopes to monitor the sky.

“I think that’s a niche capability that we’re good at providing,” he said. “I think by contributing to the broader efforts of the alliance, it gives us so much access to so many other things, primarily from the US, but also from the UK and Australia,” he said. -he declares.

Distant RADARSAT Replacement


The Canadian government plans to replace its three RADARSAT Earth observation satellites used by the military to monitor the country’s borders. (Screenshot from Canadian Space Agency video)

The Canadian military, in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency, operates three RADARSAT satellites Synthetic Aperture Radar remote sensing satellites, also built by MDA.

“It’s a key catalyst for us. We take that RADARSAT information and overlay the maritime AIS, automatic identification system, data and create a very good maritime domain awareness,” Adamson explained. “So that’s an ongoing capability that we want to continue and we have a follow-up project for that.”

The satellite replacement plan, launched in 2019, is in its infancy and Adamson did not provide details.

Options analysis for Arctic Satcom

Adamson said developing a satellite communications capability is essential for the command and control of Canadian forces in the far north. But whether that will involve developing a military satellite, buying off-the-shelf satellites or simply buying satcom as a service remains unclear, he said.

“We’re analyzing the options at the moment, so we’re just trying to figure out what that plan is. But that will be informed by what are likely to be significant paradigm shifts in how we deliver the effect. for national security,” he said. “Once upon a time there was a military-owned satellite doing its job. It’s not necessarily out of place. But there are so many other options that are now available.