March 6, 2013: On February 25th the Canadian military launched its first satellite. Launched aboard an Indian rocket, the Sapphire satellite will monitor thousands of dangerous (at least 10 cm/four inches long, wide, or in diameter) bits of debris in orbital space. Sapphire is a 148 kg (326 pound) bird described as the size of a dish washer. Its sensors track manmade objects in high orbit (over 6,000 kilometers). The most valuable satellites are in higher orbits.
There are millions of bits of manmade debris in orbit, but only about 20,000 are dangerous to satellites. Satellite (and space station) operators have to constantly check their orbits and make adjustments if there might be a collision with known deadly (at high speed coming from the opposite direction) debris. On the bright side, many of these bits of junk are large and in a low orbit, so these will soon fall towards earth and burn up.
There are many such debris swarms up there that have to be watched and avoided. These debris swarms are usually the result of accidents. For example, a year ago a new swarm was created because of the accidental explosion of a Russian rocket that put over 1,100 dangerous fragments in orbit. That and another Russian accident about the same time increased the dangerous debris in orbit by about fifteen percent. Six years ago a Chinese test of its anti-satellite weapon put thousands of dangerous debris into orbit.
The IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) is an international organization that coordinates the exchange of information, and space operations, as they relate manmade and natural debris in orbit around the earth. Every year some of this stuff falls into the atmosphere and burns up but there are always new accidents, or deliberate operations, that add more junk to the spaceways. Sapphire data will be a valuable contribution to the IADC effort.