SP-4217 Beyond the Ionosphere


Part III:
The Unfolding of the World System
Geography, Politics, and Culture
Chapter 14
The Pursuit of Equality: The Role of the Ionosphere and Satellite Communications in Canadian Development
by Bert C. Blevis



[195] Canada is a vast country. It spans six time zones, and much of its area is dominated by rugged terrain and inhospitable climates. As a result, large stretches of the country are sparsely populated. Most of the population is concentrated in a thin strip along the U.S. border, and even that is clustered heavily in the most southerly portion of the country, extending from Windsor, Ontario, in the west to Montreal, Quebec, in the east. Until the advent of satellite communications, the great rural and remote expanses of the country lacked access to telecommunications and other services taken for granted in the southern urban areas. Well before satellites arrived on the scene, however, Canadian researchers vigorously pursued other avenues of communication to bring the nation together through the enhancement of long-distance communications.


Early Ionospheric Studies


Canada's early interest in the ionosphere stemmed from two sources (Table 1). One was to understand the phenomenon that gives rise to the beautiful displays of auroral borealis (the northern lights), so often visible over Canada. The auroral borealis is especially prevalent during certain parts of the solar cycle and at particular times of the year. The other source was the attempt to understand the vagaries of the ionosphere--particularly the causes of disturbances and blackouts experienced in shortwave radio propagation.

Indeed, the early lunar radar work carried out in Canada in the late 1950s was not so much to look at the Moon as a means of communication, or even to explore its surface. Rather, it was to use the Moon as a reflecting (or, more correctly, a scattering) object beyond the ionosphere to study the effects of the Earth's ionospheric layers on electromagnetic radiation passing through them, including the Faraday rotation of the plane of polarization. The historic message from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to commemorate the opening of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory on 6 June 1959 was transmitted via the Moon. Canadian ionospheric concerns during the 1950s also extended to the problems of using radar to detect any missiles that might pass over the country's polar region.

This early attention to the Moon, as well as contemporary studies of reflections from meteor trails, led to a predilection to consider passive satellites, particularly for secure communications. Other passive communications were investigated, including large reflecting balloons such as Echo, clouds of dipoles placed into the Earth's orbit (Lincoln Laboratory's Project West Ford), and various proposals for multifaceted satellites.


[196] Table 1. Canada's Early Ionospheric Programs.





First magnetic observatory established at the University of Toronto


First International Polar Year; measurements of magnetic and auroral phenomena

12 December 1901

Marconi's transatlantic transmission to Signal Hill, Newfoundland


Second International Polar Year; field stations established in north; eclipse measurements


Ionosonde installed north of Ottawa by the National Research Council


Formation of the Canadian Defence Research Board; continuing ionospheric studies at the Defence Research Board's Telecommunications Establishment

4 October 1957

Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite (Soviet Union), International Geophysical Year

January 1958

Explorer I, the first American satellite; discovery of the Van Allen belts

July 1958

Satellite proposals invited by the Space Science Board of U.S. National Academy of Sciences

31 December 1958

Canadian proposal submitted for topside sounding satellite

11 March 1959

NASA approval in principle for topside sounder

6 June 1959

Lunar communications demonstration at the opening of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory

16 December 1959

Letter of Agreement between NASA and the Defence Research Board for Alouette


Echo I

29 September 1962

Alouette 1, Canada's top-side sounder and the first satellite by other than the Soviet Union or the United States


Telstar I, the first transatlantic television via satellite

June 1962

First Black Brant IIIA atmospheric research rocket launched


[197] Table 1 (continued)





23 May 1963

International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) program, through a Canada-U.S. memorandum of understanding for a joint program to launch four additional satellites

August 1963

Agreement with NASA for Canadian participation in the testing of experimental communications satellites, including a commitment to build a ground station

29 November 1965

Alouette 2

February 1967

Recommendation that the prime Canadian objective in space technology be its applications to domestic telecommunications and resource survey

30 January 1969


August 1969

Formation of the Department of Communications

1 September 1969

Establishment of Telesat Canada

16 May 1970

First aircraft-to-aircraft voice transmission using the sixth Lincoln Experimental Satellite (LES-6)

31 March 1971


20 April 1971

NASA and the Canadian Department of Communications sign an agreement to begin the Communications Technology Satellite (CTS) program.

November 1972

Anik A1, the first domestic geostationary communications satellite (C-band)

April 1973

Anik A2

May 1975

Anik A

17 January 1976

CTS/Hermes, the first high-powered, Ku-band satellite and the world's most powerful to date

15 December 1978

Anik B, the first commercial hybrid satellite, operating in both the C-band and the Ku-band

September 1987

Emmy Award to NASA and the Department of Communications for the Hermes contribution


[198] Alouette/ISIS


When Sputnik I was launched on 4 October 1957, scientists at Canada's Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment were among the first to monitor its transmissions and determine its orbit.1 In July 1958, the Space Science Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences invited proposals for scientific experiments to be conducted with satellites. Canadian scientists were eager to participate. On the last day of 1958, the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment submitted a formal proposal to the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for a top-side sounding satellite. NASA accepted the proposal in principle on 11 March 1959, and the project (known as Alouette 1) became a joint undertaking between Canada and the United States through a letter of agreement between NASA and the Defence Research Board on 16 December 1959.

With the launch of Alouette 1 on 29 September 1962 (just before midnight Vandenberg Air Force Base local time on 28 September), Canada became the third country in space after the Soviet Union and the United States. The stage was now set for the unfolding of Canada's space program.2 However, the government's decision not to develop satellite launch facilities in Canada restricted the space program to projects achievable only through international arrangements with foreign space agencies, such as NASA and the European Space Agency.

The principal experiment on the Alouette spacecraft was the ionospheric topside sounder, whose two rigid dipole antennas extended twenty-three meters and forty-five meters tip to tip, respectively. Other experiments included the measurement of cosmic radio noise, very-low-frequency radio emissions, and energetic charged particles.

Within a short time after the successful launch of Alouette 1, Canada initiated negotiations with NASA for additional scientific satellites. On 23 May 1963, those negotiations led to the creation of the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) program, consisting of Alouette 2, ISIS 1, and ISIS 2. Alouette 2 (launched 29 November 1965) was a modified version of Alouette 1 and included a probe experiment and an expanded sounder frequency range. The two ISIS spacecraft (launched 30 January 1969 and 31 March 1971, respectively) incorporated additional equipment furnished by the United States.

An international working group, called the Topside Sounder Working Group (but later renamed the ISIS Working Group), was set up in 1960 to provide guidance to the program. In addition to the United States and Canada, Australia, Britain, Finland, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, and Norway became involved in the program.

Before Alouette 1, scientists had virtually no direct knowledge of the ionosphere above approximately 300 kilometers. The Alouette satellite instruments provided information on electron distributions, their temporal and spatial variations, their irregularities and resonances, the influence of incoming charged particles, cosmic and solar noise, polar cap absorption, solar wind penetration, and ion species in the Earth's atmosphere.

The two Alouette and two ISIS satellites were extremely complex spacecraft for their time. They set records for longevity and established a precedent for a long history of international [199] cooperation in space. Alouette 1 was designed to have a lifetime of one year. In private, project scientists hoped to gain at least a month of data from Alouette 1, but in reality, the satellite provided data for more than ten years. The ISIS satellites remained operational for almost twenty years. In 1987, Alouette 1 was selected as one of the ten greatest engineering achievements in Canada in the past century; in 1993, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers designated the Alouette/ISIS program an International Milestone of Electrical Engineering. Scientists from ten nations published approximately 700 scholarly papers that described the results of the Alouette/ISIS program. This was perhaps the most prolific of any such program.

A fourth satellite in the ISIS program (ISIS-C) was to have been launched under the agreement with the United States, but it was abandoned in 1969. Canadian space policy had been undergoing some fundamental changes in the previous years. In 1963, for example, the Canadian government decided that the technology that had been resident in the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment until then was to be transferred to industry during the ISIS program as a means of augmenting the Canadian industrial space capability. Then came a February 1967 government report (the so-called Chapman report), which recommended redirecting space technology research to specific applications--in particular, communications and remote sensing. The objective was to place elements of space technology vital to Canada under Canadian control, as well as to foster a Canadian space industrial capability to meet Canadian needs and to address export markets.


A Global First


Even armed with all the new knowledge about the ionosphere, the emergent communications satellite technology offered the only practical solution for providing reliable telecommunications--particularly radio and television--to the 20 percent of Canadians who had no possibility of sharing in the communications and information revolution. To achieve the Canadian government's highest objective of providing basic telecommunications services to all, Telesat Canada--initially half owned by government and half by the private sector--was created on 1 September 1969.3

The launch of Anik A in November 1972, and the inauguration of service in 1973, placed Canada in the forefront--the first country in the world to implement a domestic commercial geostationary satellite system. To complete the initial system, two other Anik A satellites were launched, one in April 1973 and the other in May 1975. Similar to other communications satellite systems of the time, all three Anik A satellites operated at C-band. The Anik B satellite, launched 15 December 1978, was intended to provide Telesat Canada with capacity as a backup for the Anik A series.




After a long series of discussions, the Canadian Department of Communications and NASA signed an agreement on 20 April 1971 to undertake a joint program called the Communications Technology Satellite (CTS). The CTS was to replace the fourth spacecraft originally planned as part of the ISIS program. Because of the number of technological challenges that had to be overcome, however, the CTS program was not....



Figure 26. Launched in 1972, Anik A (above) made Canada the first country ever to inaugurate a domestic commercial geostationary satellite system.

Figure 26. Launched in 1972, Anik A (above) made Canada the first country ever to inaugurate a domestic commercial geostationary satellite system. (Courtesy of NASA)


[201] ....without its detractors. Nonetheless, the Canadian government agreed to take the lead and undertake the development work at its Communications Research Centre. This center originally had been the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment; it was transferred to the Department of Communications in August 1969 and renamed.

The objective of the CTS program was to advance the state of the art of communications satellites by developing a system capable of operating at higher powers and higher frequencies than existing systems. Such a system thereby would make direct communications possible with low-cost (at the time) ground stations in individual homes and communities. The program also aspired to develop and flight-test a three-axis stabilization system to maintain accurate antenna pointing and to conduct communications and technological experiments with the system. An additional objective of the CTS program was to improve Canadian industrial capability in the design and manufacture of spacecraft and satellite subsystems. The prevailing political environment influenced the communications experiments, focusing on an evaluation of the economic, social, and political impact of the introduction of new services in the future. Those services included the provision of medical and educational two-way television services to remote areas, community interaction, the delivery of government services, and direct-television broadcasting.

Canada designed, built, and operated the CTS spacecraft. The United States provided the high-power traveling-wave tube for the satellite transponder, as well as test and launch services for the spacecraft and rocket. It is interesting to note also that the original Canadian proposal included a supplementary L-band mobile satellite communications payload. That payload was dropped in favor of the higher frequency (twelve- and fourteen-gigahertz) communications package when it was learned that the launch vehicle provided by the United States precluded the inclusion of both systems.

Canada and the United States shared the use of the satellite equally. Subsequently, in May 1972, the European Space Research Organization (now the European Space Agency) also participated in the CTS program. The Europeans agreed to provide several components for use in future European communications satellites, including a twenty-watt traveling-wave transmitting tube, in return for developing the solar arrays at no cost to Canada.

The CTS, launched 17 January 1976, was renamed Hermes in Canada when service began on 21 May 1976. The inauguration of service included a one-hour color television teleconference between NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Communications Research Centre in Ottawa, Ontario. Canada chose the name from classical Greek mythology. Hermes, the son of Zeus, was considered to be the god of science and invention, as well as eloquence and dreams. The Hermes spacecraft was the most powerful civilian spacecraft (as measured by effective isotropically radiated power) yet launched. Designed to endure two years in space, Hermes operated for almost four years before it was lost.

During those four years, the satellite fulfilled all of its objectives. Hermes performed various communications experiments that proved its usefulness in providing medical and educational services to remote areas ("telemedicine" and "tele-education"), in promoting community interaction, in delivering government services, and in demonstrating direct-to-home television using very small reflector antennas. It is believed that the first ever direct-to-home satellite television broadcast was that of a Canadian hockey game in May 1978. The broadcast was transmitted via the Hermes satellite to a sixty-centimeter dish antenna set up at the home of a Canadian embassy official in Lima, Peru, during a reception for an international meeting. In August 1979, Hermes, repositioned over the Pacific Ocean, served in a joint satellite communications workshop with Australia and in a demonstration of direct-television broadcasting in Papua, New Guinea. Subsequently, control of the satellite was lost, and all communications ceased.

[202] Nonetheless, for Hermes's accomplishments in the field of television broadcasting and its applications, the Communications Research Centre and NASA jointly received an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1987. Because of the need to have some back-up and follow-on capability for Hermes in the event of failure of any one of its many innovative subsystems, the Canadian government arranged with Telesat Canada to include fourteen-gigahertz uplink/twelve-gigahertz downlink transponders on its Anik B satellite. As a result, Anik B was the first satellite in the world to operate in both the C-band and the Ku-band.


Mobile Satellite Communications


As early as 1967, Canadian researchers were involved in trials with the United States on the use of ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) satellites for mobile services primarily for defense operations. The use of UHF frequencies on U.S. experimental military satellites, such as the LES-5, LES-6, and TACSAT, offered the possibility of small, lightweight mobile or transportable terminals. Several demonstrations were carried out in land, maritime, and aeronautical environments. The world's first direct aircraft-to-aircraft voice communications via satellite took place on 16 May 1970 between two Canadian Department of National Defence aircraft.

The Canadian Department of National Defence continued to use U.S. satellites; Canada never implemented a military UHF mobile satellite system. Nonetheless, the early Canadian efforts led to a proposal, although never implemented, to include a UHF transponder on the Hermes spacecraft. The idea of a Department of National Defence MUSAT (Mobile UHF Satellite) eventually resulted in a proposal for a civilian mobile communications satellite called MSAT. Ultimately, with the encouragement of the Canadian government, and in cooperation with NASA, Telesat Canada and several American companies (which later formed the American Mobile Satellite Corporation) undertook the development of two satellites to provide mobile satellite services on a commercial basis in North America. Later, the responsibility for Canada's involvement in the project was transferred to a private firm, TMI Communications.




The rest of Canada's communications satellite program is more recent history. Canada was one of the founding nations of the satellite-aided search-and-rescue system known as COSPAS/SARSAT for Cosmicheskaya Sistemya Poiska Avariynych Sudov (Space System for Search of Distressed Vessels in Russian) and Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking, which became an almost instant success after the launch of the first spacecraft in 1982. Researchers at the Communications Research Centre participated in the European Space Agency's large, high-powered, multipurpose Olympus communications satellite. These researchers continue to make major contributions to the development of new communications technologies, to carry out studies on the next generation of satellite communications systems, and to explore new ways of providing access for all Canadians to the new multimedia information superhighway.

Telesat has gone on to launch its Ku-band Anik C, C-band Anik D, and the hybrid Anik E series of satellites. Anik E made history when both of the two other satellites failed during an unusual solar event. Telesat subsequently has brought them back to full operation. Mobile communications satellite studies at the Communications Research Centre [203] have led to the manufacture of American Mobile Satellite Corporation's AMSC-1 satellite, which was launched in 1995, and of MSAT-1, launched on 20 April 1996 and placed in geostationary orbit at 1075° West.

Teleglobe, Canada's international telecommunications carrier, is a signatory to and a major player in Intelsat and Inmarsat. It also has become a partner in the Orbcomm Little LEO (low-Earth orbit) satellite and now is participating with TRW in the Big LEO satellite program called Odyssey.

Canada, spurred on by the necessity of providing for the social, economic, and political needs of a population widely dispersed over a vast, and sometimes inhospitable, terrain, and subject to a harsh climate, played a major role in the exploration of the ionosphere and in the early international development of satellite communications. It has maintained its leading role through succeeding generations of new satellites and technological progress. Canada can be expected to remain at the forefront of satellite communications technology well into the future.



1. For an interesting history of the Canadian space program, see Doris H. Jelly, Canada: 25 Years in Space (Montreal: Polyscience Publications, in cooperation with the National Museum of Science and Technology, 1988).

2. For details of the development of the Alouette, ISIS, and Hermes satellites, as well as a number of interesting anecdotes, see Theodore R. Hartz and Irvine Paghis, Spacebound (Ottawa: Government of Canada, Department of Communications, 1982).

3. Hon. C.M. Drury, A Domestic Satellite Communications System for Canada (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1968), which was a Canadian government white paper, argued that "a domestic satellite communications system is of vital importance for the growth, prosperity and unity of Canada, and should be established as a matter of priority."