Big Picture: The planned Radarsat Constellation Mission radar-imaging satellites are intended to give Canada a comprehensive view of its maritime and Arctic regions. (MDA)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Canada’s military plans to boost its maritime surveillance capability by orbiting a new satellite constellation by 2018.
The Canadian government announced in late January that it would proceed with the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), a constellation of three radar-imaging satellites that will keep eyes on maritime and Arctic areas and help monitor forestry and agriculture resources.
The Canadian Space Agency has let a CAN $706 million (US $691 million) contract to pay MDA of Richmond, British Columbia, to build, launch and initially operate the RCM.
Canada also plans to upgrade ground stations to handle the anticipated flood of data from its new orbiting eyes. Officials expect to release a request for proposals for this work within a year.
Although the constellation will be used to provide information for a number of Canadian government departments and agencies, the Canadian Forces sees the system as key to its future surveillance needs.
Canada has one radar-imaging satellite, Radarsat-2, in orbit and providing maritime surveillance data.
“One satellite can give you a spotty picture of what’s going on,” said Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Andre Dupuis, the Department of National Defence’s director of space requirements. “Three satellites will give us a complete picture every single day of every ship in our area of responsibility, all the way out to about 2,000 nautical miles. ”
The RCM satellites’ synthetic aperture radar will be able to detect ships 25 meters in length or larger. The radar can conduct surveillance day or night and through heavy cloud cover.
The Department of National Defence is also funding an Automatic Identification System (AIS) package for installation on RCM. For navigational safety, the International Maritime Organization requires ships larger than 300 tons to carry an AIS beacon, which allows other ships or land-based receivers to track a vessel’s identity, speed and course.
Typically, an AIS beacon can be detected within only 50 miles. But Com Dev of Cambridge, Ontario, determined that AIS signals could be detected from a spacecraft, and it used an experimental nano-satellite launched in 2008 to prove that it could collect and process data simultaneously from thousands of ships around the world. The company, which has since acquired a number of satellites and offers AIS tracking to commercial and military clients, will design and provide the AIS payload for RCM.
It is estimated that more than 70,000 ships have AIS beacons.
The Department of National Defence is funding the AIS sensor design and its integration into RCM at a cost of around CAN $57 million.
Polar Epsilon 2
Dupuis said the Canadian military also has a separate project related to RCM called Polar Epsilon 2.
That project is focused mainly on upgrading existing ground stations in Canada, now in operation for Radarsat-2, to be capable of accepting data from RCM. The project will include work on the stations to accept the AIS data and a better radar picture.
Ground station antennas will likely have to be modified for the AIS capability and new synthetic aperture radar processors installed to allow the enhancement of RCM imagery.
“There is a significant requirement for storage of information because of course we have three times the number of satellites so we have three times the number of storage requirements,” Dupuis said.
Polar Epsilon 2 is estimated to cost CAN $142.8 million. A request for proposals is expected to be released to industry within the next 12 months, Dupuis said.
“We will have our ground station upgraded and ready to go in time for the RCM launch in 2018,” he said.
RCM has a seven-year life, but it isn’t unusual for such satellites to operate much longer.
Canada’s first radar-imaging satellite, Radarsat-1, was shut down in April after it experienced technical difficulties. The satellite, launched in 1995, surpassed its expected lifetime by 12 years, noted Michel Doyon, manager of flight operations for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
The space agency has also designed the RCM with room for growth. The baseline RCM mission is for three satellites but the constellation is designed to be scalable to six spacecraft, according to CSA.