Nova Scotia

New satellite system could make Canadian soldiers safer abroad

A trio of new satellites will allow the Department of National Defence to better monitor areas where it's deploying troops and figure out potential threats soldiers may face before they arrive on foreign soil.

'It allows us to detect minute changes on the Earth, such as someone digging and placing an explosive device'

The three RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellites will be evenly spaced on the same orbital plane at an altitude of 600 kilometres, according to the Canadian Space Agency website. (Canadian Space Agency)

The Department of National Defence will soon be able to monitor Earth in minute detail, from detecting an improvised explosive device buried in Afghanistan to determining if a ship has illegally entered the Arctic.

That's just a sampling of what the government-owned RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellite system can do.

The trio of identical satellites was launched in June and will orbit the earth every 96 minutes. The satellites will allow DND to look at almost any part of the earth every 24 hours.

"No matter where we're deploying we're able to take imagery of a location before we even get people on the ground," said Maj. Konrad Eyvindson, director of the Polar Epsilon 2 Project, which is DND's contribution to the mission.

Clouds and smoke no obstacle

The advanced radar isn't obscured by clouds and smoke.

Being able to perform such reconnaissance is a huge asset to the military, especially when it may be deploying troops in hostile territory.

"Space-based radar technology on [RADARSAT Constellation Mission] is particularly interesting because of the nature of the sensor," said Eyvindson. "It allows us to detect minute changes on the Earth, such as someone digging and placing an explosive device."   

The new satellite system will help the Department of National Defence figure out potential dangers soldiers may face before they go on a mission. In this image, a Canadian Armed Forces member provides security as medics assist German troops during a medical evacuation demonstration in Mali last year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The $1.2-billion satellite system was launched June 12 in California. It is expected to start feeding back operational data to DND this fall. 

Once that information starts coming in, the military can choose to monitor an area from space over a long period of time. According to Eyvindson, that will allow the military to determine the normal routines for people in an area.

DND could study ground and boat traffic, for example.

"What kind of activities are they up to? Because then we can understand, before we even get to the location, what's a normal activity and what's abnormal, because those abnormal activities are kind of what's dangerous to us," said Eyvindson. 

"By knowing what we're going into, it allows us to be more safe in the way that we approach those foreign deployments." 

Maj. Konrad Eyvindson is director for the Polar Epsilon II Project, which is DND’s contribution to the constellation mission. (Department of National Defence)

In Canada, the new satellite system can be used to watch over the country's shoreline, and help enforce Arctic sovereignty.  

Eyvindson said using the system to monitor vast swaths of the country could help save money because the military and other organizations won't have to put people on planes or boats to patrol an area. If the satellites detect something suspicious, a team can be sent to investigate.  

"In our vast Arctic we don't normally have a plane flying through," he said. "Or in the ocean, we have so many square kilometres of ocean to cover we simply couldn't do it by sending search and rescue planes."

Soon after the satellites were launched, the Canadian Space Agency started receiving data from them. It will be another few weeks before the Department of National Defence begins to get information from the satellites. (Canadian Space Agency/SpaceX)

The system can detect ships almost anywhere and alert the military if a vessel is crossing into Canadian waters illegally.

That's especially important because of increased vessel traffic in the Arctic. Russia has increased its military presence in the far north.

"By having three satellites in a polar orbit we will more often see the Arctic and we'll be able to better understand what is going on in our northern waters," said Eyvindson.     

Information from the satellites will also help protect Canadians from natural disasters, allowing DND to monitor floods and fires in real time, according to the Canadian Space Agency's website.  

The satellites during preparation for launch. (Canadian Space Agency/MDA a Maxar Company)

Using satellite data, military leaders can better decide where to deploy troops to help in evacuations or figure out the best spot to put sandbags to protect against flooding. 

It is not the first satellite system DND has used, but its improved sensors and the frequency of orbits will provide a better picture of what's happening on the ground.

The system will also be used for ecosystem monitoring, climate change monitoring, and aid in Fisheries and Oceans Canada's fight to stop illegal fishing

This SpaceX rocket took Canada's RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellites into space. (Canadian Space Agency/SpaceX)

The satellites are being operated by the Canadian Space Agency, which passes the information it collects on to numerous government departments.

"By using these satellites we are able to collectively help each other within these government departments and use the satellite data for not just one purpose, like fishing, but for defence and for planning our agriculture, and all of the other things that are important to Canadians," said Eyvindson.  

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