Danish military’s first satellite will keep eye on ships in Arctic

The Ulloriaq satellite could be the first step towards real-time monitoring of Greenland.

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Ulloriaq may some day work in tandem with similar satellites (Artist's conception)

Measuring about a foot on its longest side and not much thicker than a long book, the first satellite to be taken into use by the Danish military is small by astronomic standards. But, what Ulloriaq (or ‘star’ in Greenlandic) lacks in heft, it makes up for in potential to keep a closer eye on the largely untracked areas above and around Greenland.

After being launched by a Chinese rocket earlier today, Ulloriaq will settle into an orbit 450 miles (700 kilometers) above earth that will have it pass over Greenland every 90 minutes. As it does, it will turn its sensors towards ships and airplanes passing near the island.

Currently, monitoring air and surface vessels is a mission the military carries out to the best of its ability by combining its own aerial and maritime observations with information from satellites operated by foreign space agencies and commercial outfits.

[Ice services for navigators in Greenland will now come solely from satellite imagery]

In 2016, the military itself concluded that this provided insufficient coverage, in part because the satellites were not devoted to observing Greenland, resulting in time gaps, sometimes of up to several days, in the observations they sent down.

Such gaps can be closed by making use of a patchwork of satellite coverage provided by multiple systems, but this does not eliminate another problem Ullorioq has been tasked to solve. The satellites the military currently obtains information from cannot receive AIS, a radio signal that provides the identity of a vessel, as well as its position, course and speed. This means what while ships can be seen from space, it is not always possible to identify who they are or where they are heading.

This shortcoming was highlighted in 2015, when an EU satellite spotted a small oil spill off Greenland’s eastern coast. Danish aircraft and naval vessels were dispatched to investigate, but by the time the aircraft had arrived, it was too late to identify which of the ships in the area had sailed where the spill was. By the time the navy ship arrived, after about a week, the oil spill had dissipated.

While the military has embraced the expanded use of satellites as a cost-efficient way to monitor Greenland, it has also suggested that a lack of AIS capability limits their usefulness, since airplanes or ships that could receive AIS signals would still be required to identify ships.

[Artificial intelligence could allow ‘new era’ for ice services in Greenland’s waters]

Ulloriaq’s developers hope to address that concern by equipping it with an AIS radar and camera, allowing it to identify ships and record their activities.

Drones, airships and similar vessels have been suggested as another way to give the military more eyes in the Arctic. Although they can be purchased for less than the 11 million kroner ($1.8 million) Ulloriaq cost to develop and launch, they cannot cover the same ground that satellites do. They are also affected by weather.

Past experiments using satellites to monitor Greenland have proven successful. Ullorioq is itself a demonstration project due to run until October, during which time the military will be interested, first and foremost, in determining whether the information it receives from the ground is useable.

“We’ll be looking to answer whether using a satellite gives added value. And if it does, will a constellation of satellites give us even more added value,” said Charlotte Wiin Havsteen, of the military’s logistics administration.

Although no future satellites are planned, if Ullorioq works out, more would make sense, according to Havsteen. She reckons that if the military had five satellites monitoring Greenland simultaneously, it would be able to provide real-time images.

In space technology terms, that is no great feat, but it would be a giant leap for Arctic monitoring.