August 7, 2020

Episode 3: HERMES, the Communications Technology Satellite

Canada's achievements in space exploration haven't just been recognized in the scientific community. In this episode, we're talking about how Canada's Department of Communications and NASA earned an Emmy accepting Hermes as quote: "one of the most important milestones in Canadian space history."

The Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment, the DRTE, was well established by the time ISIS 2 was launched. In the late 1960s, Dr. John H Chapman wrote his infamous self titled report, the Chapman Report. In it, he recommended that Canada have its own communications satellite network. This influenced the federal government to establish the Department of Communications in 1969. The government granted the DOC responsibility for the Alouette-ISIS program, and the DRTE staff and resources were transferred to become the DOC's research branch, named the Communications Research Centre. The CRC continued to provide the same support to the Department of National Defence as the DRTE did - and still does - but its new mandate focused on civilian communication.

Enter Hermes, or better known as the Communications Technology Satellite (CTS), an experimental high-power direct broadcast communications satellite and a joint effort between the DOC, NASA, and the European Space Agency. The DOC designed and managed it, NASA provided a 200-watt travelling wave tube amplifier, environmental testing, and launched it. The DOC signed an agreement with ESA to deliver the 1200 watt solar panels and an amplifier. It was completely assembled, integrated, and tested at the David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa, Ontario. CTS was given the namesake "Hermes" after the Greek god of science and eloquence.

On January 17, 1976, at 7:28 PM Eastern Standard Time at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 17B, the Communications Technology Satellite was launched on a Delta-2914 rocket into a geosynchronous orbit at longitude 116 degrees West. It weighed 680 kilograms (or 1500 pounds) at launch and entered service four months later on May 21, 1976. It operated for three years and ten months until its last contact made in November of 1979. In this geosynchronous (or geostationary) orbit, it serviced 40% of the Earth's surface.

The satellite was meant to test all of the aspects of a high powered satellite with large antennas beaming television signals directly to homes equipped with antennas, along with two-way communications with mobile stations. The spacecraft was constructed of a 1.17-meter cylinder with 6.5-meter long solar panels that were extended shortly after it was deployed in orbit. At launch, it was the most powerful communications satellite in existence.

Okay, I've been putting together the elements for this episode and realized I glossed over a really important individual that was involved in the Hermes mission. Spaceflight pioneer Bruce Aikenhead, born September 22, 1923 in Didsbury, Alberta. He recently passed away in August of 2019 at the age of 96. We'll go into Aikenhead's biography in a future episode but he'd worked on the ISIS 2 project and later on Hermes with RCA Victor. Here's a great clip of him that I couldn't not include in this month's episode courtesy of the Virtual Museum of Canada Program.

Hermes was the first communications satellites to take advantage of what's called the "Ku band," a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the microwave range with frequencies ranging from 12 to 18 gigahertz. Today Ku band is used for high bandwidth applications like satellite television, TV network backhauls for remote locations back to a network's studio for editing and broadcasting, International Space Station communications, and SpaceX's new Starlink satellites. The use of this frequency band allows for smaller (and more convenient) satellite dishes due to the shorter wavelength signals. The disadvantage of using Ku band frequencies is the noticeable degradation of signal due to what's called "rain fade." In many cases, this was mitigated by transmitting higher-powered signals, but this requires, of course, higher-powered satellites.

Thirty-seven different experiments were conducted by federal, provincial, private agencies, and organizations all coordinated with the Department of Communications. These experiments were founded in telemedicine, remote and community education, and television distribution. In all, 27 ground terminals were loaned by the DOC to various experimenters. This included special "TV Recieve Only" terminals in isolated and otherwise challenging to service geographies like the Arctic. This experiment very much was the prelude to direct broadcast services (aka, satellite television) that are now available worldwide.

Hermes made history as the first communications satellite used for video art by artist Keith Sonnier in 1977 in his two-part work named "Send/Recieve Satellite Network." Video, text, and graphics were fed to the satellite and broadcasted across the North American continent. NASA provided a satellite uplink truck for access to Hermes. Sonnier produced this production in two phases. Phase I was a critique of satellite technology examining if it would become accessible to the public as opposed to staying exclusive to commercial and military purposes, and Phase II featured excerpts of Phase I.

Its capabilities didn't stop there. The satellite was used in telemedicine for emergency medical services, teleconferencing, and community television. In May of 1978, it televised the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Playoffs to Canadian diplomats in Peru. This was the first direct to home satellite television broadcast in the world. These exercises contributed to the creation of the Anik B satellites and served as an underlying platform for more projects to directly broadcast television to consumers.

The Anik satellite series - "little brother" in Inuktitut - are also geostationary communication satellites launched and operated by Telesat Canada that are dedicated to television in Canada. Sixteen Anik satellites have been launched between 1972 and 2013 with nine distinct iterations along the way. Anik B, the successor to Hermes, was devoted to broadcasting CBC Television, CBC Parliamentary Television, CITV-TV Edmonton, CHCH Hamilton, and TVOntario. At the time, CNCP Telecommunications, a telegraph operator, also used Anik B as a relay for its services. The Globe and Mail also used Anik B to transmit copy to printing plants across Canada, and rest assured we'll go into depth with the Anik series of geostationary communication satellites in a future episode.

In July 1979, Hermes was moved to a new location 26 degrees farther west to longitude 142 degrees West. This allowed for experiments to be conducted in Australia, specifically in the outback where communications were generally quite tricky due to its sheer geographic size and lack of population density.

Overall, the Hermes program was launched to meet the following objectives:

  • To enhance Canada's capability to design and manufacture spacecraft,
  • To develop and flight prove spacecraft subsystems for use in future communications satellites,
  • To advance space to ground communication technology,
  • To flight prove Ku band communications hardware for use in future higher power communications satellites and for low-cost ground stations and,
  • To show the social, cultural, and economic impact of the introduction of satellite communications.

The Hermes satellite was an incredibly flexible platform for experimentation and met and exceeded all of its objectives. Researchers gathered essential data about "rain fade" and what would make future communications satellite platforms like Anik more flexible and ultimately more successful. Hermes was retired in November of 1979 after nearly four years of successful experimentation. Hermes now lies in an inclined parking orbit - to free up valuable space in the altitudes where a geostationary orbit is possible.

And of course, we can't forget to mention the 1987 Emmy that was awarded to the Department of Communications and NASA recognizing their joint role in developing Ku Band satellite technology with the Hermes program. Canadian Minister of Communications Flora MacDonald for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the time referred to the Hermes satellite as "one of the most important milestones in Canadian space history" when she loaned the award for engineering achievement to the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario.

Stay tuned for the rest of Season 1, where we'll continue our conversation on some of the other satellites Canada has contributed and what that's meant for innovation in Canada and abroad! 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 Patron page at Thanks for watching. Stay safe, and be well.

References: Brief History of CRC.html