Canadian Arctic Security Increasing with Acquisition of Three Satellites and Polar Radars

Artist illustration of three microsatellites in formation. Credit: SpaceQ/Shutterstock/Space Flight Laboratory.

The Department of National Defence has awarded two contracts valued at $46.2M from the All Domain Situational Awareness Science & Technology Program for three microsatellites and two polar radars.

The All Domain Situational Awareness (ADSA) Science & Technology (S&T) Program, part of the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) mandate, is a five year program allocating $133M through 2020 “to leverage innovative science & technology expertise from other government departments, academia, industry and allies, to identify, assess and validate technologies in support of air and maritime surveillance, particularly in the North.”

A specific focus of the program are;

  • Strategic surveillance of airborne traffic and aerospace warning;
  • Awareness of maritime traffic in Canadian approaches and Arctic littoral regions;
  • Awareness of sub-surface activity approaching or in Canada’s North; and
  • Analysis of sensor mixes and information integration and sharing for all domain awareness to enable
  • detection of modern threats beyond the threshold of the current systems.

The two contract address Canada’s arctic security needs. One will provide space-based arctic surveillance, while the other provides land-based arctic surveillance.

The ASDA S&T program, and these contracts, are part of DND’s ongoing implementation of Canada’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, which was launched in June 2017.

Project Gray Jay – Space Based Arctic Surveillance

Details surrounding DND’s announcement that it would acquire three microsatellites to built by the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) in Toronto are few at this time.

Canada's unofficial bird, the Grey Jay
Canada’s unofficial national bird, the Grey Jay. Credit: SpaceQ/Shutterstock.

The initiative is known as Project Grey Jay Pathfinder.  The name comes from Canada’s unofficial national bird, the Grey Jay, which can be found right across the country, including large parts of northern Canada and the western Arctic.

Here’s what we know so far.

SFL will build three microsatellites at a cost of $15M. The contract includes SFL procuring the launch of the satellites. SFL partners in the project include A.U.G. Signals Ltd. and Space Strategies Consulting Ltd (SSCL).

It comes as no surprise that SFL won the contract. The 20 year old lab has proven itself to be an innovator in developing cutting edge technology for small satellites.

SpaceQ contacted SFL to learn more about the three microsatellites and their mission. Dr. Robert Zee, the Director of SFL, said he could not disclose specifics on the satellites but was able to provide some unclassified information.

Dr. Zee characterized the three satellites as an early warning demonstration mission. DND in their press release characterized SFL’s contract as “the development of a prototype of a multipurpose microsatellite equipped with state-of-the-art sensor technology for air and maritime surveillance.”

Dr. Zee also said A.U.G. Signals will develop data processing algorithms and software for the payloads and SSCL will be supporting military need/utility analysis and future planning.

He also pointed out that a media report citing Raytheon as a partner in the project was factually wrong. Raytheon is not involved in the project.

The ASDA S&T program request for proposals went out over two years ago. The decision to move forward with what has become known as Project Grey Jay was made over a year ago.

As for the satellites themselves, we don’t yet know what size they will be or what payloads will be onboard. However, at a cost of $15M for all three satellites, including launch, we can surmise that the microsatellites will fall in the lower end of the microsatellite size, perhaps somewhere between 20-50 kg.

NEOSSat. Credit: University of Calgary.

As a comparison, another DND satellite, NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), cost approximately $25M to build and weighs 74 kg and measures 137 × 78 × 38 cm.

Even though NEOSSat had its problems early on, the mission has adapted, lessons have been learned, and as one person familiar with the project put it, “NEOSSat is paying off.”

It is the successes and lessons learned from NEOSSat that has in part convinced DND to move forward with Project Grey Jay. Small satellites are proving their worth, and at a fraction of the cost of developing larger satellites such as the RADARSAT Satellite Constellation, which will have cost over $1B.

SFL will first build a prototype satellite followed by two more satellites. The three will will be launched so that they can fly in formation when the mini-constellation is completed.

While no timeframe has been released, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the first prototype satellite is built and launched within two years.

SpaceQ contacted DRDC to find out more details on the program and will provide an update when more information is available.

Polar Over-the-Horizon Radar – Land Based Arctic Surveillance

Raytheon Canada Limited (RCL) was awarded $31.2M for a demonstrate the feasibility of sky-wave radar which is commonly referred to as Over-The-Horizon Radar. The contract while announced by DND this week, was previously announced by Raytheon in early December.

In that press release Raytheon provided a few more details including the fact that it would design, build and install two over-the-horizon radar sites in Canada’s polar region. For security reasons the locations of the two radar sites isn’t being disclosed.

According to the DND media release, sky-wave radar is a “technology for the detection of air targets at all altitudes beyond the radar’s horizon. This involves reflecting signals off of the ionosphere and back to a receiving station located beyond the line of site. Once operational, the system will be used in conjunction with other systems to further understand the effect of the Aurora Borealis on target detection beyond the horizon.”

“Raytheon built and operates a similar radar system in the U.S. which has been key to defending America’s borders,” said David Appel, director for mission systems at Raytheon IIS. “A full over-the-horizon radar will monitor the arctic, as those waters have become more accessible to shipping traffic.”

“We will be working with Canadian suppliers to secure the Canadian north,” said Terry Manion, RCL vice president and general manager. “We understand the environment and can provide crucial technologies which may lead to significant long term economic growth.”

In a recent SpaceQ podcast on Arctic security, Arctic Security expert Colonel (retired) Pierre Leblanc spoke of a related technology, also developed by Raytheon, called High Frequency Surface Wave Radar.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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