David Pugliese, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, gives us some much-needed good news. “Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation Mission was launched successfully into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this morning [whcih was a week ago, now] from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California … [and] … The constellation of three satellites will provide daily images of Canada’s territory and maritime approaches, as well as images of the Arctic, up to four times a day, according to the Canadian Space Agency. It will have daily access to 90 per cent of the world’s surface. The RCM is also equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS), allowing improved detection and tracking of ships, including those conducting illegal fishing, the CSA noted … [further, he explains] … The constellation will orbit Earth at an altitude of 600 km. Each of the satellites has a life expectancy of 7 years. The Canadian government owns and will operate the satellites. The three spacecraft were assembled in the Montreal area by the prime contractor MDA.“
I explained, in a different context, how one type of satellite ‘constellation’ ~ satellites in geosynchronous (or geostationary or ‘fixed’) orbit ~ works. The RCM is different. The satellites are in low-earth orbit, only 600 km above the earth (which is slightly higher than the International Space Station which orbits at around 400 km above the planet and slightly below the (66 satellite) Iridium global communications network satellites which orbit at 780 km above ground) and, of course, low earth orbit is far, far below the geosynchronous orbit which is almost 36,000 km above the earth.
The Canadian Space Agency explains that “The three RCM satellites will be evenly spaced on the same orbital plane at an altitude of 600 km … [which means that] … The system offers up to four passes per day in Canada’s far north and several passes per day over the Northwest Passage … [because] … The satellites will move at 27,200 km/h and [therefore each will] take about 96 minutes to circle the globe.”
While the new constellation is a vast improvement over the performance of RADARSAT1 and RADARSAT2, it is far from what I said the Canadian military needs to provide effective surveillance over Canada’s vast territory and the maritime approaches to it and in the airspace over both, which is a “real time” surveillance and warning system which, at a guess, would require a constellation of a dozen (likely more) satellites working in conjunction with a network of large, ground-based radars and underwater sensor systems, too.
Some people will likely think of a RADARSAT as being an active radar on a satellite providing a constant stream of radar screen images of the territory over which it passes. Such satellites can and do exist but Canada’s RCM actually takes very large pictures, each with something between a 1 metre (spotlight) or 100 metre (low res), resolution. The system will take many, many useful images per day and it will be possible to “see” all of Canada, in slow motion, over a period of time.
This is NOT what the Canadian military needs to detect and identify intruders into Canada’s sovereign territory and airspace and to direct interceptors, but it is, none the less, a major achievement for Canadian science and industry. The Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates* have done well … but Canada needs more.
The RADARSAT Constellation Mission is reported to have cost about $1.2 Billion. My guess is that a suitable, effective military surveillance and warning system would cost five to ten times as much … perhaps (only a SWAG ~ a Scientific, Wild Arsed Guesstimate) at least $4-6 Billion for a satellite constellation ~ several satellites in a few non-geosynchronous orbits, and $2.5 Billion for new terrestrial radars, and another $2.5 Billion for underwater sensor fields. That’s just for surveillance and warning … there’s nary a bullet nor a bean in any of that … ships, tanks and aircraft, and the men and women to use them are extra.
So, good news, we are still world leaders in space … and a warning that we need to be ready to spend more on this sort of technology.
* I need to stress, following on from two days ago, that I am not quoting Professor Byers because I am upset because MDA was bought by a US conglomerate but I am sorry that a leader in space technology could not find enough work in Canada to prosper here, and globally, as a Canadian company. My belief is that companies must make their way in the world as best they can and that state-owned or state-managed industry is doomed to fail, again and again, and again.