Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite

With the successful launching of Alouette 1, Canada became the third nation to have an Earth-orbiting satellite, and, consequently, became the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States, in space. Returning data about the space environment, Alouette became one of the most productive research satellites during the earliest years of the space age.

Summary of Event

In support of national security during the heightened tensions of the Cold War during the 1950’s, Canada’s Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment, Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment, Canadian headed by Frank Davies, conducted research to improve the use of various radio bands for long-range communications, especially the high frequency range. After the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 (October 4, 1957) and the United States launched Explorer 1 (January 31, 1958), Canada was hoping to build its own satellite, one that would be launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;and Canada[Canada] (NASA), a U.S. space agency. An agreement with NASA was signed in April, 1959, wherein Canada would supply a satellite, the Alouette, for launch. (Alouette is French for “skylark.”) Space program, Canadian
Satellites, artificial;astronomy
Alouette 1
[kw]Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite (Sept. 28, 1962)
[kw]Nation to Orbit a Satellite, Canada Becomes the Third (Sept. 28, 1962)
[kw]Satellite, Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a (Sept. 28, 1962)
Space program, Canadian
Satellites, artificial;astronomy
Alouette 1
[g]North America;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
[g]Canada;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
[g]United States;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
[c]Space and aviation;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
[c]Science and technology;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
[c]Communications and media;Sept. 28, 1962: Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite[07330]
Brown, Reg K.
Chapman, John Herbert
Davies, Frank
Jackson, John E.

Alouette’s mission, led and managed by Reg K. Brown, John Herbert Chapman, and John E. Jackson, had both technological and scientific objectives. The overriding purpose for the mission was to thrust Canada into the burgeoning space age and demonstrate that the nation could contribute meaningfully to high-technology projects of the future. It also was meant to advance Canadian technological capability and develop space engineering infrastructure. Experience with Alouette was expected to improve the use of high-frequency communications systems that relied on reflection from the ionosphere; this would be possible because Alouette would investigate the ionosphere from above. In so doing, one of the scientific objectives of this innovative satellite was to measure ionospheric electron density from an altitude of 300 to 1,000 kilometers (about 190 to 620 miles). Another scientific objective was to measure electron density in and around the satellite using the energetic particle detector and the galactic noise experiment.

The ionosphere’s thickness varies, but is often considered that region of the atmosphere from an altitude of 55 to 1,000 kilometers (34 to 620 miles). Energetic particles within that region can generate disruptions in radio communications, and Alouette’s suite of instruments were designed to investigate how electrons and positive ions interact with artificially produced radio waves. Data collection in the form of ionograms began within weeks of the Alouette launch.

In the manner that NASA would adopt for its interplanetary probes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, two Alouette spacecraft were built to prepare for the potential of a launch vehicle accident or an early malfunction of the first satellite. In either contingency, the backup spacecraft could be launched within a matter of months. Construction proceeded on a fast track, as the proposal received high priority from the Canadian government. Under the direction of John Herbert Chapman, Alouette went from a proposal to flight hardware in just 3.5 years. The two Alouette spacecraft were manufactured at a Canadian Forces base located in Downsview, Ontario, a facility that later became the Toronto Aerospace Museum. Just as NASA garnered widespread congressional support by spreading work contracts across the country, Alouette assemblies were produced at a number of different facilities throughout Canada and then consolidated into the flight hardware at the Downsview base. Three actual models were built. One was just a prototype, and the other two became Alouette 1 and 2.

When ready for launch, Alouette had a total mass of 145 kilograms (320 pounds) and was nearly one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter at maximum. The actual shape of the satellite was highly polygonal, with solar cells covering the majority of its many faces. Designed to be spin-stabilized once in orbit, the need for a great deal of attitude fuel was avoided. Alouette was outfitted with four small telemetry antennae and four Storable Tubular Extendible Member (STEM) antennae. The STEM antennae were arranged together in pairs on opposite sides of each other around the spacecraft’s midsection to set up a pair of dipole antennae 22.8 and 45.7 meters (75 and 150 feet) long when fully deployed in orbit. The STEM antennae were needed for three of the satellite’s experiments. As an ionospheric observatory, Alouette was equipped with an ionospheric sounder, a cosmic-noise experiment, an energetic-particle detector, and a very long frequency receiver. Alouette’s design also incorporated a magnetometer and temperature measuring devices, but these were part of spacecraft operations systems rather than for research.

Alouette 1 was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop a Thor-Agena B booster rocket on September 28, 1962, just before midnight (Pacific Time). The satellite was safely injected into an orbit ranging from 987 to 1022 kilometers (613 to 635 miles) inclined 80.5 degrees to the equator, one having an orbital period of 105.2 minutes. By launching into an orbit with such a high inclination, Alouette would be able to investigate regions of the ionosphere over the vast majority of populated landmasses where the ionosphere was used for bouncing high-frequency radio waves between transmitting and receiving Earth-based stations.

After launch, Alouette was spun up, and then its antennae were extended and locked into position. In so doing, as expected by conservation of angular momentum, the spin rate decreased to 1.4 revolutions per minute (rpm). This did not last. After roughly 1.25 years, Alouette slowed to 0.6 rpm. Essentially, the spin-stabilization mode had failed, and in time Alouette moved into a gravity-gradient attitude with its longest STEM antenna pointing toward Earth.

Because it was not outfitted with onboard data recorders, information from Alouette could only be obtained when the satellite passed within range of ground stations in Hawaii, Singapore, Australia, Europe, and Central Africa. This manner of data collection permitted use of the satellite’s instruments for six hours daily during its first decade in space. Alouette 1 was turned off while still operational in September, 1972. It remained in orbit throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.


Ionospheric research from orbit began with the U.S. probe Explorer 1, but that probe was not very sophisticated. Alouette 1 led to the development of an International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) project. Signed on May 23, 1963, by Canada and the United States, the ISIS accord called for the launch of Alouette 2 (November 29, 1965), ISIS 1 (January 30, 1969), and ISIS 2 (March 31, 1971). The ISIS program was essentially only a Canadian-United States cooperative program, although eight other nations did contribute somewhat. Alouette 2 was launched into an orbit with a maximum altitude of just under 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles), three times as high as its predecessor. Alouette 2 suffered power-supply degradation in June of 1975, and within a month operations with it ceased.

Alouette 1 was the longest-lived satellite launched in 1962, or in any year prior; it had been designed to last just one year but was still going strong ten years later, when it was turned off. Ninety-six satellites and space vehicles launched in 1962 (including Rangers 3, 4, and 5; Tiros 4, 5, and 6; Friendship 7, Aurora 7, and Sigma 7; Orbiting Solar Observatory-1; Telstar 1; Vostoks 3 and 4; Mariner 2; and Relay 1), all of which were U.S. or Soviet missions. The missions included piloted spaceflights as well as satellites that investigated meteorology, solar astronomy, the planet Venus, the Moon, and the potential for establishing worldwide communications. In due time the list of nations that developed their own satellites would grow quite lengthy, but with Alouette 1, Canada became the third nation to do so. Canada would make tremendous contributions to NASA’s space programs in addition to following independent projects. Eventually, Canadian astronauts would fly in space, but their spacecraft would continue to be launched by other nations throughout the twentieth century.

Alouette was named as one of the ten greatest achievements during a century of Canadian engineering. It also gained international recognition in 1993, when the International Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) designated Alouette an International Milestone of Electrical Engineering. Space program, Canadian
Satellites, artificial;astronomy
Alouette 1

Further Reading

  • Canadian Space Agency. The Canadian Space Strategy. Longueuil, Que.: Author, 2003. The official Canadian Space Agency report on its future and its plan of operations. Available at
  • Dotto, L. Canada in Space. New York: Irwin Professional, 1987. An extensive history of Canada’s contributions to the exploration of space.
  • Gainor, Chris. Arrows to the Moon. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 2001. One in a long and excellent series of space history texts produced by Apogee Books, this work centers on the myriad contributions by Canadian engineers to the development of the U.S. space program.
  • Zimmerman, Robert. The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries In Space. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2000. A chronological exposition of launches into space from the earliest days of the space age to the end of the twentieth century.

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