Alouette 1, the first Canadian satellite

Alouette 1 (which means “skylark” in French), which takes its name from a French-Canadian folk song, was the first Canadian artificial satellite. Its mission was to study the ionosphere. The first satellite constructed by a country other than the Soviet Union or the United States of America, Alouette 1, which was advanced for its time (NASA initially doubted whether the available technology would be sufficient), was launched on September 29, 1962. Canada was the fourth country to operate a satellite, as the British Ariel 1, constructed in the United States of America by NASA, preceded Alouette 1 by five months.

The Black Brant sounding rocket

The origins of the Canadian upper atmosphere and space program can be traced back to the end of the Second World War. Between 1945 and 1960, Canada undertook a number of small launcher and satellite related projects, including the development of the Black Brant rocket as well as series of advanced studies examining both orbital rendezvous and re-entry.

Black Brant, which was the result of research at Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) during the 1950s into the nature of the upper atmosphere as part of ongoing research into anti-ballistic missile systems and very-long-range communication, is a family of Canadian-designed sounding rockets originally built by Bristol Aerospace, since absorbed by Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Over eight hundred Black Brant of various versions have been launched since they were first produced in 1961, and the type remains one of the most popular sounding rockets ever built. They have been repeatedly used by the Canadian Space Agency and NASA.

Alouette 1, the first Canadian satellite

The development of Alouette I came as a result of an American invitation, through the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, for international collaboration in its budding satellite program. Within months, John Chapman and Eldin Warren, scientists at Canada’s Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE), submitted to NASA a proposal to design and build a Canadian satellite that could monitor the ionosphere from above. The proposal was accepted and a team of DRTE scientists was formed under Chapman’s leadership to begin the process of designing and building two identical Alouette models.

A key device on Alouette 1 were the radio antennas consisting of thin strips of beryllium copper bent into a slight U-shape and then rolled up into small disks in a fashion similar to a measuring tape. When triggered, the rotation of the satellite created enough centrifugal force to pull the disk away from the spacecraft body, and the shaping of the metal caused it to unwind into a long spiral. The result was a stiff circular cross-section antenna known as a “stem” for “storable tubular extendible member”.

Alouette 1, which was part of a joint U.S.-Canadian scientific program (NASA was eager to collaborate with international partners, and Canada had the additional objective of developing its own space research program), was to investigate the properties of the top of the ionosphere (using over seven hundred different radio frequencies to investigate its properties from above), and the dependence of those properties on geographical location, season, and time of day. The United Kingdom also aided the mission by providing support at two ground stations, in Singapore and at Winkfield.

Alouette 1, which made Canada the third nation, after the USSR and the United States of America, to design and construct its own satellite, was launched by NASA from the Western Range (WR), the space launch range that supports the major launch head at Vandenberg Air Force Base (California) on September 29, 1962, into orbit around Earth. It was placed into an almost circular orbit with an altitude of nine hundred and eighty seven kilometres to one thousand and twenty-two kilometres with an inclination of 80.5°. The satellite marked Canada’s entry into the space age and was seen by many as initiating the most progressive space program of that era.

After three and a half years of design and construction, Canada’s 145-kilogramme satellite was flown to California and launched by a Thor-Agena launch vehicle. Thor-Agena was a series of orbital launch vehicles. The rockets used Thor first stages and Agena second stages. They are thus cousins of the more-famous Thor-Delta, which founded the Delta rocket family. The first attempted launch of a Thor-Agena was in January 1959. The first successful launch was on February 28, 1959, launching Discoverer 1. Among other uses, the clandestine Corona program (a series of American strategic reconnaissance satellites produced and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science & Technology with substantial assistance from the U.S. Air Force; the Corona satellites were used for photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and other areas beginning in June 1959 and ending in May 1972) used Thor-Agena to launch US military reconnaissance satellites operated by the CIA.

Alouette 1, which did not have a tape recorder to store data (it was only possible to obtain data when the satellite was in range of a receiving station), carried four scientific experiments:

1) Sweep-Frequency Sounder. This experiment measured the electron density distribution in the ionosphere by measuring the time delay between the emission and return of radio pulses.

2) Energetic particle detectors. An arrangement of Geiger counters and scintillators for detecting energetic particles.

3) VLF Receiver. An experiment for measuring both artificial and natural VLF signals. It was sensitive to frequencies between 400 and 10,000 Hz.

4) Cosmic Radio Noise. Two long radio antennas for detecting radio noise from the Sun and the Galaxy.

The satellite was initially spin-stabilised, rotating one point four times per minute. After about five hundred days, the rotation had slowed and the spin-stabilisation failed at this point. It was then possible to determine the satellite’s orientation only by readings from a magnetometer and from temperature sensors on the upper and lower heat shields. Alouette 1’s mission lasted for ten years before the satellite was deliberately switched off on September 30, 1972. The satellite remains in orbit.

The success of Alouette 1 marked the beginning of a strong relationship between not only Canada and the United States of America, but nations all around the world. Space and planetary science and exploration has become one of (if not the greatest) examples of international partnership and cooperation. This historical moment was just the first of many. Canada has become a world leader in space science and technology.