Canada's military took a giant leap into the space game today with the launch of its first satellite from a pad in India.

Sapphire is a space vehicle about the size of a dishwasher that will act as an orbiting air traffic controller.

'It's better looking than a dishwasher.'—Canadian Brig.-Gen. Rick Pitre

"It's better looking than a dishwasher," joked Canadian Brigadier-General Rick Pitre, director general of space, when asked by the CBC about the new satellite.

"In fact, it is interesting the analogy you provide, because it is about understanding the cleanliness of space," Pitre added.

mi-sapphire

Canadian Forces' first satellite, Sapphire, will act like an air traffic controller in orbit. (MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates)

Sapphire was built for the Canadian Forces by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates. It will be able to monitor every object bigger than 10 centimetres across that is circling the earth.

"I think understanding what's actually happening up in space is critical, and that's where Sapphire comes in," said Pitre.

The idea is to make sure that none of those 20,000 orbiting pieces — some junk, some multi-million-dollar satellites — bump into each other. Because at 35,000 km/h, a baseball-sized chunk of metal ramming a communications satellite can take down a nation's phone network.

"It will very likely destroy the spacecraft — make it explode into many, many other sub-pieces and then create more debris," explained Michel Doyon, flight operations manager at the Canadian Space Agency, one of the partners in Sapphire's launch.

Doyon said the problem of space junk got a lot worse in 2007. That was the year the Chinese decided to target one of their defunct weather satellites with a missile. The resulting explosion made thousands of pieces of orbiting debris — and headaches for space agencies around the world.

More on the story

Margo McDiarmid has more on the Sapphire launch tonight on World at Six on CBC Radio One, and watch her full report on The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. on CBC Television.

In 2009, a dead Russian satellite collided with an Iridium communications satellite creating a cloud of thousands of more hunks of metal.

"That's really changed how we do business here in the [Joint Space Operations Center]," Canadian Major Cameron Lowdon, chief of space situational awareness, told CBC News from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Vandenberg, Calif.

Canadians have been working with Americans at Vandenberg for decades. Now, the JSPOC has assumed the role of safety monitor for the world's space assets, Lowdon says.

He is in charge of a group that catalogues pieces of debris and each of their trajectories. When they see a possible collision in the making, they alert the owner of the satellite. Then the company or country has to decide what to do. In some cases, a satellite can be manoeuvred out of the way, while in others nothing can be done.

All about 'orbital safety'

"Orbital safety is what we're really trying to maintain here," Lowdon says.

Sapphire will complement a battery of ground-based observation stations. When the earth-bound monitors spot a possible collision, Sapphire will be able to take a picture of a dangerous piece of space junk unimpeded by the earth's atmosphere or weather systems.

With this piece of hardware, Canada has carved out a unique niche in the space-based surveillance world, said Lowdon. In the past, the Canadian Forces provided personnel for the effort but never a satellite. The U.S. also has a space-based debris monitoring satellite called Space Based Space Surveillance.

"We're going to be able to walk around here with a bit more pride on our shoulders, I suppose, as Canadians," Lowdon added.