Canadians will celebrate a major milestone in space this Saturday as they mark 50 years since the launch of Alouette-1 on Sept. 29, 1962, one of the most successful scientific satellites ever deployed.
With this historic mission, Canada entered into the space age and became the third nation, after Russia and the U.S., to have entirely designed, built, and operated a device in space. It also launched a new era of international scientific cooperation.
“This was the beginning of a proud space legacy for Canada—it opened the door for outstanding international partnerships that continue to this day,” said Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), in a news release.
The small science satellite was designed to study the Earth’s ionosphere, a layer of ionized gas in the upper atmosphere, from above.
Developed by a team led by John Chapman at the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) in Ottawa, Alouette-1 was launched by NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Some of the equipment used on the spacecraft, including semiconductors, deployable antennas, and solar cells, later became standard technologies in space systems.
“Canada’s rich history in space began with Alouette-1, and this legacy paved the way for Canadian innovation in space, such as the iconic Canadarm,” said Industry Minister Christian Paradis in the release.
Paradis highlighted that Earth observation, space robotics, space science and exploration, and satellite communications are among the Canadian space sector’s niche areas of expertise today.
Alouette Success Remarkable
Before the age of satellites, besides landlines and underwater cables, the main method of long-distance communications was based on high frequency radio, where radio waves in this shortwave band of frequencies are reflected back to Earth by the ionosphere.
This wireless communication was not very reliable due to irregularities in the ionosphere, especially at northern latitudes.
Alouette-1 presented a new and powerful way of using satellite-borne radar to explore the topside of the ionosphere not observable from Earth, and ultimately to provide ionospheric data needed to improve this type of radio communication.
Designed for a lifetime of one year, Alouette-1 actually operated for 10 years, producing more than 1 million ionograms. In 1993, it was designated an International Milestone of Electrical Engineering by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
“The success of Alouette-1 was all the more remarkable in that a new art had to be established in space electronics and space mechanics,” Colin Franklin, former Chief Electrical Engineer for Alouette at DRTE, said in the release.
“The program was undertaken at a time when there were few guidelines to satellite design, little was known of the in-orbit environment, semiconductor electronics was in its infancy, and satellites frequently failed or had limited lifetimes.”
New Space Robotics
Canada will launch the CASSIOPE satellite in 2013 to further study the ionosphere and the space weather that occurs there, which impact satellites in orbit as well as power lines, pipelines, and communication and navigation systems on Earth.
On Thursday Canada also unveiled prototypes of the Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) at the MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates’ facilities in Brampton, Ont.
The NGC consists of two robotic arm prototypes, two test facilities to simulate bringing a pair of spacecrafts together for docking or close-contact operation, and a mission control station to allow remote operation of the NGC systems.
“Space robotics will be required for a variety of missions, from rovers that act as robotic planetary explorers to robots that will repair and refuel satellites and space telescopes,” said Gilles Leclerc, Director General of Space Exploration at CSA, in a news release.
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