Even if sovereignty over the Arctic has been repeatedly cast as a national priority, a top general says military forces have trouble simply communicating in the region sometimes.
Brigadier-General Rick Pitre, director of space operations at the Department of National Defence, told an international space conference Wednesday about a lack of infrastructure that makes it difficult to operate there.
Existing Canadian satellites provide a number of services across the country, like supporting search-and-rescue services, providing medical assistance, and monitoring ice coverage and ships at sea.
Up North, that satellite coverage is sparse.
While the poles remain the least-covered regions in the world, things are getting better because there are generally more satellites in orbit.
“Space-enabled services (satellites) are increasing certainly, over in that area, and they are beginning to connect the Arctic with the South,” Brig.-Gen. Pitre said.
“Communications at extreme latitudes are no less a challenge for the military,” Brig.-Gen. Pitre told the conference of space professionals. “We need a balanced and certainly an affordable option, if we are going to crack this particular nut,” he said.
In the last election campaign, the federal Conservative platform laid out a 14-point plan for increasing Canada's presence in the Arctic and bolstering sovereignty claims to the region. The plan ranged from increasing adult skills training to spending $720 million to build a polar icebreaking ship.
Communication remains a challenge, though.
It's impossible to have a satellite permanently stationed over the North Pole because the only place so-called geostationary satellites can be parked is above the equator, where they follow the rotation of the Earth and appear motionless.
Canadian space officials are eyeing a possible alternative, suitable for the Arctic.
Brig.-Gen. Pitre described as “a promising option” the Polar Communications and Weather Mission being developed by the Canadian Space Agency.
It would place two satellites over the poles, and let them take turns orbiting between the North and South poles – that way, the Arctic would receive more consistent coverage.
Brig.-Gen. Pitre made his comments at a conference organized by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute.
During his speech, he also stressed that Canada is a “three-ocean nation with the longest coastline in the world” and it needs wide surveillance in order to exercise its sovereignty.
The Canadian general now has his eye on the Radarsat Constellation Mission – a three-satellite program which, according to the CSA's website, is expected to be launched in 2014 and 2015.
The government says the program will enhance maritime and land security, and drastically improve coverage of the Arctic.
“This will be a game-changer in the strategic awareness of Canada's ocean approaches and those worldwide,” Brig.-Gen. Pitre said.
During a question-and-answer session, he also said there are no plans to develop a launch capability in Canada for satellites. He has been involved in discussions since 2003 about the possibility of Canada launching its own rockets.
“At this point in time we're not actively talking about (it),” Brig.-Gen. Pitre said.
“It boils down to understanding what the overall cost is and whether this is an affordable option down the road.”
Brig.-Gen. Pitre hasn't ruled out the possibility of Canada launching its own rockets in the future, saying it could still happen if the costs of launching satellites go up in the coming years.
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