— Canada’s first satellite, Alouette-1, which launched on this date, was a springboard for what is now commonplace collaboration among members of the international space science community.
Canada became the third nation, following the United States and the Soviet Union, to design and build its own satellite. By developing the satellite without establishing the entire launch infrastructure to go with it, Canada carved out a singular space presence for itself. To launch the satellite, Canada struck a deal with the United States to use its two-stage Thor-Agena rocket and related launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The idea for Alouette-1 was the result of a July 1958 call for ideas sent to U.S. allies by the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences, which wanted ideas for science satellites. Later that year, John Chapman and Eldon Warren, of Canada’s Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE; now the Communications Research Centre) in Ottawa, sent a proposal to NASA for the development of an advanced satellite to study the ionosphere.
Under their proposal
, Canada was responsible for financing, building and testing the satellite –
the environmental testing, which was done at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
United States was made
responsible for conducting and paying for the launch.
Chapman and Warren proposed building an advanced satellite to study the ionosphere because little was known at the time about the atmosphere’s uppermost layer above 400 kilometers.
In December 1959, NASA officially accepted Chapman and Warren’s proposal with a letter of agreement between NASA and Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment. The DRTE team responsible for overseeing the satellite’s development and operation, the Topside Sounder Working Group, was formed in early 1960 with Chapman at the helm. The team built two satellites, later using the backup model for Alouette-2.
With no prior satellite-building experience, the Canadians suffered through several setbacks during Alouette-1’s development. Ultimately they settled on an approach that stressed simplicity and redundancy.
For instance, Alouette-1 included spare batteries but no data storage system. To compensate for the lack of an internal capability, ground stations were used as storage havens, downloading scientific data as the satellite passed within a station’s line of sight. The ground stations also provided telemetry and tracking data for Alouette-1.
NASA ground stations were made available, which included facilities throughout the United States, as were some in South America, England and Australia. In March 1961, the United Kingdom offered the use of its ground stations in the South Atlantic and Singapore, in exchange for the immediate use of the satellite data.
DRTE provided the master ground station in Ottawa, which monitored Alouette-1 and controlled its operating schedule.
Despite being dependent on ground stations for data storage, the Topside Sounder Working Group’s conservative approach kept the satellite functioning for 10 years – a record at the time – well beyond its design expectancy of one year.
Though even with its conservative approach, the design team encountered some risks.
In order to measure and transmit the distribution and variation of electron density, which was the satellite’s primary function, antennas were needed that were 10 times longer than any previously used on satellites. After extensive testing, the working group outfitted Alouette-1 with 22.8-meter and 45.7-meter dipole antennas set perpendicular to one another. Success of the entire satellite depended on the proper deployment of the “roll-up” antennas since three of its four scientific instruments used the antennas. The 145-kilogram satellite included a sweep-frequency ionospheric topside sounder, a Very Low Frequency receiver, an energetic particle detector and a cosmic noise detector.
During its decadal reign
in its 1,000-kilometer near-polar circular
orbit, Alouette-1 was cited in nearly 300 scientific articles.
Having built a satellite that was just as complex or more complex than any previous satellite and with a new type of antenna that would be used on future satellites, Canada more than proved itself as an able satellite developer.