March 2, 2020

Episode 1: Alouette

As the first world raced to space, in 1962 Defence Research and Development Canada were hard at work on satellites Alouette-I and Alouette-II to launch Canada onto the stage as the fourth country to operate a satellite and the third country to design and construct their own satellite in the world.

The ionosphere was of particular interest to Canadians due to navigators finding magnetic anomalies with their compasses around the arctic circle. Early experimentation with ground based radio equipment found a relationship between solar activity and the ionosphere. The National Research Council of Canada was becoming a world leader in ionospheric research and was looking for new ways to understand the ionosphere's properties.

This started with the early Black Brandt sounding rockets. These sent scientific payloads into a suborbital trajectory which helped unlock some of Earth's ionospheric secrets. The advent of the Russian Sputnik probe spurred a whole new opportunity for Canada to study the ionosphere from above instead of below. We'll talk more about Black Brandt in a future video.

Alouette-I and Alouette-II, French for "skylarks", were a joint U.S-Canadian program to discover from above the secrets of the Earth's ionosphere and what relationships it shared with geographical location, season, and the time of day.

It took a meer three and a half years to develop and build Alouette-I, but they didn't build just one bird. Prototypes S27-2, S27-3, and S27-4 were assembled by Defense Research Telecommunications Establishment Electronics Lab in Ottawa, Ontario or DRTE for short. The frame of the satellite and its STEM antennas - Storable Tubular Extendable Mechanism - were built by Special Products and Applied Research Aerospace (SPAR Aerospace), a company who was the product of a management buyout of de Havilland Canada's Special Products division and Avro Canada's Applied Research unit. The STEM antennas were flown aboard NASA's suborbital flight of the Freedom-7 capsule, making Alan Shepard the first American to travel to space in 1961. STEM was flown again in 1962 aboard NASA's Friendship-7 capsule with John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. It was also flown on most of the Apollo and Gemini missions and we'll understand why they were later on.

You've heard of de Havilland for airplanes like the DHC-1 Chipmunk and the DHC-8 Dash 8 but the history of de Havilland Aircraft of Canada dates back to 1928 in the Second World War.

Avro Canada was also a Canadian aircraft manufacturing company founded in 1945 and grew to be the third largest company in Canada at the time. Avro had acquired PSC Applied Research Ltd., and renamed it Canadian Applied Research, Ltd. in 1957. PSC, a flight navigation computer manufacturer, brought talented electronics engineers to Avro Canada. These engineers brough troves of knowledge and expertise to the government sponsored Avro Arrow aircraft program that Avro was proudly working on. Until it was cancelled just one year into production on Friday, February 20, 1959 when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker announced immediate closure of the Arrow program. It was announced that some 14 000 people lost their jobs overnight and the company was ordered to destroy the eight prototypes.

Dennis McDermott, trade unionist with the United Auto Workers and soon to be Director of the UAW was quoted to have said, "We will now lose the cream of our skilled aircraft technicians to the United States. History will prove this to be one of the most colossal blunders made by a prime minister in the history of Canada." And we did - this sent the company on a downward spiral with many of their company's other engineers accepting jobs with Boeing, North American Aviation, Hughes, and McDonnell. More than 30 joined NASA and played key roles of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Those that held on with the company carried on through to SPAR. They are known as the developer of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) or as it's best known, the Canadarm for NASA's Space Transfer System (best known the Space Shuttle). Today SPAR is a part of MD Robotics after an acquisition in 1999, a subsidiary of MDA Space Missions who recently constructed the Canadian Space Agency's RADARSAT constellation, and, of course, Canadarm2, but more on that in later videos.

Okay, back to Alouette. The goal of the Alouette mission was to bring Canada into the space age and to study the ionosphere through the measurement of electron densities and flux at altitudes between 300 and 1000 km.

Alouette-I weighed 145 kg (or 320 lb) at launch which was made up of four scientific experiments: a Sweep-Frequency Sounder, energetic particle detectors, Very Low Frequency receiver, and two long radio antennas for detecting radio noise from the Sun and the Galaxy. The sounder was an experiment designed to measure the density of electrons in the ionosphere by measuring the time delay between transmitting and receiving a radio pulse. It was able to transmit pulses between the frequencies of one and twelve megahertz at a power up to 100 watts. The particle detectors were really just an arrangement of Geiger counters for detecting particles. These experiments shared the four STEM antennas that were deployed after launch measuring 45.7 meters and 22.8 meters in length.

S27-3 was extensively tested under harsh g-force and vibrational conditions and proved to stand the abuse. It was transferred to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, DC for acceptance by NASA. They tested the satellite in similar conditions and subsequently flew the satellite to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Alouette-I was mated atop the Thor DM-21 Agena-B rocket on a large spring to help propel the satellite away from the Agena-B second stage upon orbit.

Satellite S27-3 was launched as Alouette-I by NASA aboard a Thor DM-21 Agena-B rocket from the Pacific Missile Range at Vandenberg at 11:05 pm local Pacific Daylight Time on September 29, 1962 and was delivered to a nearly circular and nearly polar orbit between 987 kilometers and 1022 kilometers at a 80.5 degree inclination. We can see Alouette-I's orbit in Celestrak and just how inclined it's orbit is. Here now we can see just how important it was for Canada to work with international partners to get coverage over other parts of the world because as the Earth turns, Alouette-I remains in a more-or-less static orbit.

Interestingly enough, the satellite didn't have any way of storing the data it was receiving and this in itself cultivated long lasting relationships with with international partners. It was important to be able to record data from Alouette-I (and eventually Alouette-II) at as many points in its orbit as possible. As a result NASA and the United Kingdom aided the mission by providing support at ground stations and fed data back to the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory in - you guessed it- Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. This resulted in being able to record up to six hours of data per day from Alouette-I and Alouette-II via ground stations in Hawaii, Singapore, India, the UK, Norway, Australia, and Central Africa. Today, PARL consists of two antennas and acts as a central control hub for Natural Resources Canada's three ground stations - the other two being in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and Gatineau, Quebec. There was also an 18 meter diameter antenna was built at the Gatineau, Quebec ground station and stands today as a monument to the Alouette missions. More on these coming in a later video.

After launch the satellite was spin-stabilized to rotating at only 1.4 times per minute. About five hundred days into the mission the rotation had slowed down to about 0.6 rotations per minute and at this point the spin-stabilization failed. Spin-stabilization is accomplished by setting the satellite spinning and using the gyroscopic action of the rotating spacecraft mass as the stabilizing mechanism. This is similar to how a yo-yo or a top stabilizes it's orientation. Due to this failure it was only then possible to determine Alouette-I's orientation via magnetometer readings and temperature readings from the upper and lower heat shields and was only accurate to within ten degrees. Researchers speculate that the effects of gravity on the satellite caused the longest antenna to eventually point towards Earth. This still proved to provide good data for scientists and the mission carried on.

Meanwhile, satellite S27-4, Alouette-I's backup, was quickly modified and launched as Alouette-II by NASA on board a Thor SLV-2 Agena-B rocket from the same Pacific Missile Range at 8:48 pm local Pacific Standard Time on November 29, 1965 to a similarly polar orbit but in a much more elliptical orbit of 508 kilometers and 2652 kilometers at a 79.8 degree inclination. The idea was to extend the scope of the Alouette mission in both altitude coverage and the number of different ionospheric parameters being measured.

The main reason why we built two flight ready satellites was that the early rockets were notoriously unreliable and having two satellites ready would protect the mission from launch anomalies. The difference between Alouette-I and Alouette-II was that Alouette-II was fitted with five experiments on board. It also included a Langmuir probe experiment to measure the ion large ion sheath around the satellite caused by it's long antennas. Modifications were also made to the antenna system to correct the spin rate decay that Alouette-I suffered by adding reflective plates to the ends of the longer antennas.

Alouette-I carried on its mission for six years before being deliberately switched off on September 30, 1972 and to this day it's still soaring high in our sky having orbited nearly 86 000 times. The original mission was to be only a year long and it was exceedingly successful in that to carry on for six times longer. It lead to over 280 papers written on its data and proved to the world that Canada was ready to be a leader in the space age. It's quietly watched civilization develop into the technology age and it's estimated to continue to fly for another 950 years until it's orbit has decayed enough to make a firey return back to Earth.

Alouette-II continued on and lasted ten years and was switched off on August 1, 1975. A data restoration effort was completed in the late nineties and successfully saved a great amount of the high-resolution data before the Canadian Space Agency discarded the telemetry tapes. This information is now available on the Canadian Open Government Portal where you can find hundreds of images with invaluable first looks at our planet's ionosphere.

Through heartache and dismay of the Avro Arrow the Alouette missions proved that Canadians are more than capable to contribute to the space industry and has since opened doors to innovate with the Canadarm and other missions.

Stay tuned for the rest of Season One where I'll talk about some of the other satellites Canada has contributed and what that's meant for innovation in Canada and abroad! Don't forget to follow Canadian Space on Twitter and at There you'll find transcripts of our episodes and additional resources to continue your own exploration into Canadian space! If you like what we're doing here and want to contribute financially, head on over to our Patreon page at Thanks for watching.

Sources: (TLE)