A gem in space: Canada’s Sapphire satellite continues to shine

24 February 2023 — Royal Canadian Air Force

Emily Lindahl, D Air PA

What was planned as a five-year mission in space has become a decade of contribution to Space Domain Awareness. This month as it celebrates its tenth anniversary Sapphire, Canada’s first dedicated military space surveillance satellite, continues to track man-made objects orbiting the Earth.

The Space Surveillance Project officially began in 2001-2002, with the implementation eventually being contracted to MDA (formerly MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates). MDA’s relatively small, but dedicated team worked closely with the team at the Department of National Defence. “The integration between the primary contactor and the Sapphire team at DND was outstanding and played a key role in the success of the project,” states former Operational Requirements Manager, Colonel Paul Maskell.

A passive optical sensor, Sapphire relies on light reflected from the sun to capture images of objects in space. These images are recorded as dots of light which are processed into precise measurements of positions in orbit and then used to update orbit information as a part of the Space Surveillance Network (referred to as the “SSN”), overseen by the United States Space Command.

Col Maskell noted that the satellite exceeded its minimum design specifications, “seeing” beyond the original requirements, with an optical range far exceeding that of the human eye – into the near-infrared spectrum. This capability allows Canada to contribute high-quality data in support of our allies and partners.

Sapphire continues to capture images of man-made objects up to 40 000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface (and often beyond) using an electro-optical sensor system. “Even after ten years, we have not seen significant degradation of the sensor’s capabilities,” Col Maskell says. He notes that “Sapphire is a highly reliable sensor system, a workhorse if you will, supplying very accurate data to the SSN.”

With no propulsion component of its own Sapphire will remain in orbit and, barring any catastrophic impacts with another man-made or natural object, could continue its tracking for many years to come.

A few facts about Sapphire:

  • Sapphire is approximately 1 m3 in size and weighs 148 kilograms (326 pounds).
  • It is one of approximately 5 000 active satellites currently in orbit around the Earth.
  • Sapphire’s original project budget sat at 96.5 million Canadian dollars – and of that, approximately $10 million was returned at project end – primarily due to cost savings related to keeping the project team small and optimized.
  • The satellite was launched on 25 February 2013 aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle contracted through ISRO’s Antrix Corporation Ltd.
  • Sapphire serves as a contributing, deep space sensor in USSPACECOM’s Space Surveillance Network of radar and optical systems for monitoring the heavens.
  • Canada is the only ally of the United States to own and operate its own dedicated space surveillance satellite tracking man-made objects in Earth’s orbit.
  • In addition to active satellites, there are more than approximately 23 000 additional pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimetres orbiting the Earth.
A rocket being lauched into space.

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in its twenty third flight (PSLV-C20), launches the Indo-French satellite SARAL along with six commercial payloads from Canada, Austria, Denmark, and UK into a 785 km polar sun-synchronous orbit inclined at an angle of 98.538 deg to the equator. Photo courtesy of the Indian Space Research Organization.

Image gallery

A group of people in a lab, wearing protective equipment.

Members of the Sapphire team from the Department of National Defence and MDA in the lab. Photo: DND, 2013.

A group of people posing for a photo, standing in front of Canadian flags on masts. Behind them, a backdrop with the word "SAPPHIRE."

Celebrating the Sapphire team from the Department of National Defence and MDA. Photo: DND, 2013.

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