Canada’s space program has received major publicity since Colonel Chris Hadfield was launched into space on December 19, 2012. In March 2013, he will become the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station (ISS). Hadfield’s very active Twitter account, photos of earth, outreach to youth and documentation of life on the ISS is inspiring the next generation of astronauts.
While some may not consider the environment to be a priority of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), one of the organization’s four main focuses is “to look down upon the Earth to observe, monitor and protect life below”. Observing the earth, through technologies like satellites, helps the Agency to monitor, measure, and predict changes to Earth’s atmosphere, cryosphere, oceans and biosphere – and help inform government departments in their efforts to protect Canada’s wilderness.
Less than a month after Colonel Hadfield was launched into space, the Canadian government announced major funding for the unmanned RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM). The RCM is a continuation of the successful RADARSAT earth observation satellite system Canada has had in place since 1995. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd has been awarded a $706 million fixed price contract to build three satellites that will make up RCM.
What does RADARSAT do?
The RADARSAT earth observation satellites use Synthetic Aperture Radar to capture images of earth using microwave frequencies. Microwaves allow the satellites to provide imaging solutions regardless of earth’s atmospheric conditions (e.g. cloud cover, smoke, rain, snow) and during the day or night. These characteristics make the satellites ideal for a range of government, scientific and commercial users.
One of the key government agencies using RADARSAT data is the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). The CIS uses RADARSAT data to monitor ice conditions for marine navigation and oil pollution from ships for the Integrated Satellite Tracking of Polluters (ISTOP) program.
The Evolution of RADARSAT
The CSA began earth observation in 1995 with the launch of the RADARSAT 1 mission. The RADARSAT 1 satellite continues to operate despite having a mission life of only 5 years. The satellite was designed for ice monitoring, iceberg detection, marine surveillance, disaster management, hydrology, mapping, geology, agriculture and forestry.
RADARSAT 2 was launched in 2007 and was meant to provide continuity to the users of the data from the RADARSAT 1 satellite. RADARSAT 2 built upon the success of the RADARSAT 1 mission and new innovations allowed for increased reliability, ability to detect and recognize objects at higher resolutions (ship classification), and better terrain classification. Images from the mission have helped most recently in the Philippines with disaster relief when Typhoon Bopha hit in December 2012. It has been used in a variety of settings including monitoring water quality and microbial contamination of recreational waters, monitoring changes in glacier flow rates, monitoring ecological changes in national parks, and supporting flood response activities.
While controversial because final costs of the project have increased from estimates provided in 2010, funding for the construction, launch and initial operational support for three RCM satellites was announced on January 9, 2013. These three satellites are to be launched in 2018.
The three primary uses of the RCM satellites will be maritime surveillance, disaster management, and ecosystem monitoring. The three satellite combination will allow 95% of the world to be imaged on a daily basis and four daily passes over the Arctic will help with the RCM’s Arctic and the Northwest Passage ship monitoring efforts as traffic increases over the next few years. These satellites will also enhance ecosystem monitoring; estimating biomass in forests, tracking wildlife movements and habitat fragmentation, mapping and classifying wetlands, identifying and tracking coastal erosion, monitoring climate change impacts on ecosystems, and monitoring the environmental impact of mineral exploitation.
Investing in new satellites for earth observation will not only help the CSA fulfill its mandate, but will also provide invaluable information to the scientific community about changes that are occurring to Earth’s natural systems. In turn, this scientific evidence can be used to help support the development of effective policies that ensure the protection of our atmosphere, cryosphere, oceans and biosphere.
By Peter Smalley, [email protected]