On September 29, 1962 Canada became the third nation in space with the historic launch of the Alouette-1 satellite. 61 years later the Canada Space Agency has completed a massive restoration of data from the mission and made that data publicly available.
In a news release the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) stated “that over a million images have been extracted, processed and digitized.” The CSA posted a blog of their restoration efforts which outlined the long process to digitize the data.
As the CSA relates in their story on how the data came to be digitized, there were nearly “30,000 film rolls” to process. Those film rolls were not even in the possession of the CSA. The data received from Alouette-I’s was processed by Canada’s Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) at its processing facility just west of Ottawa at their Shirleys Bay campus.
The DRTE staff would “produce ionograms, which depict the reflections of radio waves emitted from the satellite off the top side of the ionosphere. The ionograms were recorded on 35 mm film” as shown below.
The CSA took ownership of the 30,000 film rolls from the DRTE. In 2027 the CSA outsourced the digitization of the films. By then the films had been in storage for 47 years. The film could last 35 years. So the restoration process needed to be completed before the film became too degraded.
One of the fascinating parts of this story is what happened next. In 2017 the CSA participated in its first NASA Space Apps Challenge. (The next NASA Space Apps Challenge is this coming weekend.) One of the teams in the challenge was a group of students from the University of Waterloo who called themselves JAM. They won Challenge 1: Be part of Canada’s legacy in space by developing a way to read the Alouette-1 metadata. (Shown below)
The CSA said their initial efforts “resulted in 5054 film rolls scanned, yielding 1,612,104 images of ionograms.” However, in the time since the CSA states they developed a new data extraction algorithm that resulted in 693,677 images being “fully read and processed.”
That new process included using their “high-performance virtual computing environment. In this process, a new metadata format was realized. To read this new format, an AI-based text-recognition algorithm was employed to read the numbers directly from the scanned images.”
For a good historical overview of the Alouette-1 mission and its significance, you can read our story by historian Chris Gainer which was first published in Space Quarterly magazine.
Here’s where you can find the data:
- Data exploration application for historic ionograms, Canadian Space Agency
- Alouette-I – Ionogram Data Extraction – Data from Canada’s First Satellite Over 60 Years In the Making, on GitHub
- Ionosphere images from Alouette satellites, Government of Canada Open Data and Information