Canada’s first satellite, Alouette 1, is best known for being dedicated to scientific research. But that is only part of the story.
Alouette 1, which continues to silently orbit the Earth on the 50th anniversary of its launch, was as much a product of the Cold War as its more famous predecessor, Sputnik, and it was a forerunner of the communications satellites that have since formed the heart of Canada’s space industry.
The story of Alouette began at the turn of the twentieth century in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless message to cross the Atlantic on Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland. By the 1920s, radio allowed communities in every part of Canada to keep in touch.
Radio communications over long distances are possible because radio waves bounce off the ionosphere, a dynamic region in the atmosphere starting at around 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface and extending up over a thousand of kilometres into space. At this altitude, atoms gain and lose electrons, and hence become ionized.
But radio communication is not always reliable, especially in the North, where settlements and bases can be cut off for days at a time. That is because the ionosphere is affected by solar storms, which unleash charged particles that strike Earth’s magnetic field and the upper atmosphere. Another effect of this ionospheric turbulence is the aurora borealis, which light up the night skies in northern Canada and are sometimes seen further south.
The National Research Council of Canada began conducting ionospheric research in the 1930s, and it worked harder in this area in World War II because of the importance of radio communications for Canada’s navy.
As the Cold War began in 1947, the federal government set up the Defence Research Board (DRB). At one of the board’s branches, the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) in Shirley’s Bay, near Ottawa, physicists bounced radio waves off the bottom of the ionosphere to record its changing reflective properties, and they launched balloons and sounding rockets to probe the upper atmosphere. Some of these were a part of the worldwide scientific investigations undertaken as part of the International Geophysical Year in 1957 and 1958.
A diagram of the Alouette 1 spacecraft showing subsystems. Credit: DRTE/Canadian Space Agency.
The launch of Sputnik and other satellites starting in 1957 marked the beginnning of a race to create satellites that could improve communications on Earth. The United States launched a balloon, Echo, in 1960 to bounce radio and television signals from one point to another. Soon communications satellites such as Telstar were being tested in medium Earth orbit, and the U.S. military even tried to create an artificial ionosphere by launching millions of needles into orbit.
Although Arthur C. Clarke first wrote of the concept of geosynchronous communications satellites in 1945, major advances in transponder and antenna technology, including the traveling wave tube, were still needed before such satellites could become feasible.
Because of the many uncertainties surrounding communications satellites, researchers in the late 1950s and early 1960s were still looking at other ways of improving communications. Experts from the U.S., Canada and elsewhere bounced signals off the Moon. And physicists in many countries expressed an interest in using satellites to probe the unknown upper reaches of the ionosphere in hopes of better understanding how it affects radio communications.
Canadian and American scientists held discussions in 1958 about a satellite equipped to bounce radio signals off the top of the ionosphere to complement the knowledge gained from ground-based equipment bouncing radio signals off the bottom of the ionosphere.
Late that year, the DRB proposed building this so-called “topside sounder” at the newly founded U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose mission included fostering international scientific cooperation. The following year, NASA and the Canadian government agreed that NASA would supply a launch vehicle and Canada would design and build the satellite at the DRB.
The satellite was built under the direction of physicist John Herbert Chapman, a native of London, Ontario who had served as a radar officer in England during the war and become an expert in the physics of the ionosphere. Chapman’s team was made up of many experts, including physicist Eldon Warren, Keith Brown, who headed the engineering team, Colin Franklin, in charge of electrical systems, and John Mar, who headed mechanical design.
John Chapman at the Alouette 1 launch site. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.
The Alouette team set to work on designing and building a satellite that was more capable than a similar American satellite then under development. Alouette was built to “sweep” the ionosphere with more than 700 different radio frequencies.
Alouette’s best-known feature was its pair of dipole antennas, 23 and 45 metres long, that were the largest antennas deployed in space up to that time. The antenna was the brainchild of one of Canada’s greatest inventors, George Klein, whose creations included nuclear reactors and electric-powered wheelchairs. His STEM (storable tubular extendible member) antenna was rolled up like a carpenter’s measuring tape during launch. When it was unspooled in space, the pre-stressed steel formed a tube and maintained its strength as it extended.
The equipment to be flown on Alouette, including the STEM antenna, was tested on sounding rockets, and on June 22, 1960, the U.S. Navy launched the Transit 2A navigation satellite that included the first Canadian equipment sent into orbit, preparing the way for Alouette by testing for background radio noise in space.
Alouette 1 also carried equipment to detect cosmic rays and high-energy radiation to add to the trove of information about the Earth’s radiation belts. The Canadian team took a conservative approach to building its new satellite, which proved useful late in the process when NASA informed Canadian authorities that the vibrations during launch would be more severe than originally anticipated. Alouette 1 was already strong enough to face the greater buffeting it would experience in flight.
“When we started the program, we knew virtually nothing about the problems of designing and building a satellite,” Franklin said later. “There were no textbooks on the subject. You had to write your own textbook as you went along.”
Most people in the Alouette team were young and worked long hours–70 and 80 hours a week, he said. “We tested very thoroughly all the bits and pieces on the satellite.”
Two flight-ready, 145-kilogram oval-shaped Alouettes, each covered with 6,500 solar cells, were flown to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where the U.S. launches satellites into polar orbits. One of them was installed inside a nose cone on top of a Thor-Agena rocket.
As the launch time approached, Chapman was nervous, he later admitted, because of the temperamental reputation of the Agena rocket. “I had my fingers crossed, my legs crossed, and everything else crossed. At that time, there was a 50-percent chance of failure in launchings.”
Alouette 1 mockup assembly. Credit: John Colbert. From Harry Kowalik’s personal collection.
At 11:05 p.m. Pacific Time on September 28, 1962, the countdown reached its end and the Thor-Agena soared southward into the black skies over the Pacific. A few minutes later, Alouette 1 was in orbit, 1000 kilometres above the Earth. For those anxiously following the launch from the DRB facility in Shirley’s Bay, it was already September 29.
An hour and a half after launch, Alouette 1 neared the end of its first circuit around the Earth and passed over a station near Fairbanks, Alaska, that picked up the signal confirming that it was in orbit, In return, the station ordered the satellite to deploy its antennas.
When Alouette 1 first went into orbit, Canada had become only the third country–after the U.S. and Russia–to have a satellite it had built put in orbit. (Ariel 1 had been launched a few months earlier by NASA for the United Kingdom, but it was built by NASA in the United States and carried British-built experiments.)
Alouette 1 was designed to operate for one year. Its builders, facing some predictions from NASA officials and the media that Alouette would have a short life, decided that if it lasted three months, the mission would be deemed a success. Ten years after launch, after it had sent back two million soundings of the ionosphere to scientists in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., Alouette 1 was switched off for the last time after having set a record for length of operation in space.
Alouette 1’s data were used in more than 280 scientific papers, also a record for the time, where scientists shared their findings about how the ionosphere reacts to changes in the solar wind. By any measure, Alouette 1 was a remarkable success.
Alouette 1 mockup assembly. Credit: John Colbert. From Harry Kowalik’s personal collection.
“The Alouette 1 was probably also the most complicated satellite that had been built up to that time,” said LeRoy Nelms, who worked in the program. Nelms credited Colin Franklin and his work testing every component that went on the satellite with its long life.
“We ended up paying the manufacturer to set up a dedicated production line in order to produce transistors, which met Colin’s quality standards,” Nelms said. “This may have been the birth of the space components industry. It was certainly the reason that the Alouette 1 lasted 10 years, rather than the industry standard lifetime of several weeks that we had experienced up to then.”
Adding to the Canadian pride was the fact that a simpler American ionospheric research satellite that was due to fly before Alouette 1 was held up by technical problems and didn’t fly until 1964 as Explorer 20.
Following the launch of the first Alouette, Canada and the U.S. established the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) program. Under this program, Canada built and NASA launched Alouette 2 in 1965, ISIS 1 in 1969 and ISIS 2 in 1971. All were successful and advanced scientific knowledge about the ionosphere and its impact on radio communications.
The Alouette and ISIS satellites are remembered for being scientific in nature. Yet they were aimed at understanding problems affecting communications in Canada and should be seen as an applied science or even as a communications program that was a natural predecessor to Canada’s communications satellites.
Alouette prototype spacecraft integration. Credit: John Colbert. From Harry Kowalik’s personal collection.
Alouette 1 had been built mainly by the scientists and engineers at the DRB, but starting with Alouette 2, the work of building Canadian satellites was farmed out to private industry as part of a federal government policy of encouraging high technology businesses. This policy led to the growth of companies such as Spar Aerospace, which was later acquired by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates to form its robotic divison, and COM DEV International.
By the time Alouette 2 was launched in November 1965, the American Syncom and Early Bird satellites had shown that repeater satellites operating in geosynchronous orbits 35,800 km above the equator would the dominant space-based communication tools for the coming decades.
Television signals bounced off satellites were to become far more important than radio signals bounced off the ionosphere, and so the Canadian government decided to examine its space policies, with a special emphasis on communications.
In 1967, a study group led by Chapman produced a report on Canada’s space programs that amongst other things called for Canada to set up a domestic geosynchronous communications satellite system, and the government, which was anxious to improve communications systems around the country, set up the Department of Communications in the federal government and Telesat Canada, a corporation that was owned both by the government and private interests, to carry out this policy. Most of the engineers and scientists who had built the first Alouette were shifted from the DRB to the Department of Communications.
Alouette 1 tests completed and ready to ship for launch. Credit: John Colbert. From Harry Kowalik’s personal collection.
Telesat worked on launching Canadian communications satellites leading up to the launch of the first Anik satellite in 1972. Funds saved when a planned ISIS 3 satellite was cancelled were shifted to build the new and powerful Communications Technology Satellite, which was named Hermes when it was launched in 1976. This satellite pioneered satellite technologies including direct-to-home broadcasts and helped insure that Canada played a key role as a builder of systems for communications satellites up to the present day.
Although Canadian scientists built experiments for satellites launched by other countries, the premature end of the ISIS program meant that no new Canadian scientific satellite was launched until 2003, when the Canadian Space Agency launched the MOST space telescope mission and the SCISAT atmospheric investigation satellite in 2003.
Fifty years after Alouette’s launch, the Canadian military that created it is re-entering space with the launch of two satellites – Sapphire, a Department of National Defense space surveillance satellite, and NEOSSat, a satellite jointly funded by Defense Research and Technology Canada and the Canadian Space Agency to advance technologies involved in the search for near-Earth asteroids and debris in orbit around the Earth. In a sense, these satellites will bring the story of Canada’s space program full circle back to its roots.
NOTE: A special gala event commemorating the 50th anniversary is being held on September 29th at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. You can meet the pioneers and the next generation of Canadian explorers. For more information visit the Canada On Orbit Gala web site. The SpaceRef team looks forward to meeting you there.
The launch of Alouette 1 September 29, 1962. Credit: DRTE/Canadian Space Agency.
Editor’s note: The following article was from SpaceRef’s magazine, Space Quarterly, which is no longer publishing. You can still order back issues of the magazine.
Contributed by: Chris Gainor Is a Ph.D. historian and author specializing in space flight and aeronautics. He has written four books, including Arrows, to the Moon, Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race, and To a Distant Sun: The Rocket Pioneers, and numerous articles in journals, newspapers and magazines.