On January 17th, 2019 the Manitoba Aerospace Association was treated to a presentation from Phil Fergusson. Here is a recap of his very interesting presentation on Canada’s history in space.  (These notes and words are not his, just our recapture of his talk). Click the name of each technology below to learn more about the rocket, satelite or system.

Black Brant Rocket

On January 17th, 2019 the Manitoba Aerospace Association was treated to a presentation from Phil Fergusson. Here is a recap of his very interesting presentation on Canada’s history in space. (These notes and words are not his, just our recapture of his talk).

Bristol Aerospace, now Magellan Aerospace of Manitoba was the genesis of the Black Brant Rocket and while this rocket would seem to be otherwise, it is named after a goose – the Black Brant goose. The Manitoba Museum has one such decommissioned rocket on display with a graphic of the goose on the fuselage.

The Black Brant Rocket at the Manitoba Museum

The following is a very old NRC produced video (circa 1959) about the Canadian Black Brant Sounding Rocket which was fired at the Churchill Research Range in Churchill, Manitoba. There is also a lot of background information provided during this 14 minute video about the Black Brant Program.


Another more recent rocket launch is found at the link below. Phil noted the short span of the rocket burn and that fact that the rochet achieves hypersonic speeds within 100 feet of the launch. This following video shows two camera angles, a front and back view – throughout the entire launch and landing. The phases of the rocket shown are – launch of rocket, de-spinning of the rocket at the 50 second mark, and return to earth, having gone up about 250km during the 20 second burn. The rocket returns to earth and the camera angles show a reversed perspective.


In this video the earth’s atmosphere looks very interesting. As the rocket descends, the camera shows how proportionately thin the atmosphere really is. The rocket parachute deploys 2:30 into the flight allowing for a recovery of the rocket cone and equipment situated in that section.

Alouette 1

Alouette 1 was the first Canadian and 3rd satellite ever launched (in 1962). This satellite was deactivated in 1972 but is still found in space today. During its lifetime the satellite produced 1 million images. This satellite has a mass (on earth) of 145 kg and is about 1 m in height. Alouette 1 was positioned into a circular orbit around the earth, about 1000 km high. Alouette’s stocky design corrected some spin elements and limitations that NASA observed in its own satellite which was launched earlier. 

Alouette 1, launched in 1962 (145kg and 1+m high) 

Anik 1

The next satellite launched by Canada was Anik 1, (Nov 1972) It was designed to improve communications in the far north and was used by CBC for broadcasting purposes to that region.  Anik translates in to “Little Brother” in the Inuktitut language and is unique from previous satellites in that this satellite is geo stationary. Anik 1 is located at about the 107 W latitude and is situated about 36000 km above the earth.   This satellite was designed and commissioned with a seven-year mission, but it was able to continue on mission until it was retired in 1982.  

Anik was built with a weight of 560 kg and has a height of 3.4m (in extended form).  Surprisingly the satellite was able to communicate with us with an output power of only 7 watts. 

Anik was designed with 12 radio frequency channels, each of which is capable of transmitting a color television signal or up to 900 one-way voice channels.  


Anik 1 in fully extended form, under inspection.

Since that launch many of Canada’s satellites are now named in series using Anik as the title lead. The latest launch, the 16th in the series was Anik G1 which was launched in 2013. Five Anik satellites are still in service.


Another significant Canadian Space innovation was the Canadarm which was developed for and put into service on the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-2) in 1981. This Canadarm was in some form of use in space by NASA until 2006. This technology had a unique robotics component which enabled the astronauts to operate the Canadarm in complex ways with limited instructions and controls. (i.e. a good user experience long before this became a core feature in technology development)

The Canadarm under deployment during a space walk.

A major call out for the Canadarm was during the Hubble repair. The Hubble Hugger was a Canadarm upgrade that was developed in 1991 specifically for this task. Several items were swapped out on Hubble at that time and certain technology upgrades were installed as well. Phil reported that a warped door on the Hubble (due to aging in space!) put the Canadarm into good test as the arm had to be used to open the door, rather than the astronaut torqueing the handle. A total of five generations of Canadarms were built by Canadians for NASA. (Some of the firms that participated in these projects were also located in Winnipeg)

Space Vision System

A subsequent innovation produced by Canadians was the Space Vision System. Initially this system was developed in the 1970’s at the National Research Council (then transferred to a small tech business – Neptec in 1990). This system uses films of dots which are installed on the space shuttle and ISS, to help with docking. The dots are often referred to as “Neptec” dots. This technology uses the images that are gathered by onboard cameras which are then processed via software. In this way the known positions of the targets are used to triangulate the exact relative positions of the space vessels in real time. 

The choice of white backgrounds and black dots for the “Neptec” dots offers an interesting explanation. The dots are composed of thin films of silicon dioxide layered with inconel to form an inconel interference stack. These stacks have nearly no reflectivity in the electromagnetic spectrum. The result is a black color that appears even blacker than the flattest black paint. The harsh glare of direct sunlight in space can blind human vision and contrasts between objects in black shadows and objects in the solar light are much greater than in Earth’s atmosphere, even where no glare is involved. A minimum of three dots are needed to accomplish successful triangulation. These Neptec dots are quite unobtrusive on most payloads. In photos these disks look like small black dots.

Neptec dots installed on a space shuttle. Note the high contrast in the dots.


In time ordering, of Canadian technological accomplishments in space, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) or DEXTRE, was a two-armed robot, or telemanipulator that was launched in 2008 for STS-123 (Space Transportation System). This robot performs repairs that would otherwise require a space walk by the astronauts. While it may seem exciting and opportune to send astronauts out for a space walk, this is a high-risk event that is avoided if at all possible.

DEXTRE deployment on the ISS. Note that the Canadarm is still in use and is situated to the right!

DEXTRE is part of the Mobile Servicing System on the International Space Station (ISS), and does repairs otherwise requiring spacewalks. This technology was launched March 11, 2008 on mission STS-123. This technology was designed and manufactured by MacDonald Dettwiler. 

DEXTRE resembles a gigantic torso which is fitted with two extremely agile, 3.5 metre long arms. This robot has a total mass of approximately 1,600 kgs.


RADARSAT is another Canadian space accomplishment. The first of these series, RADARSAT-1 was launched November 1995 and was equipped with a powerful synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument. This allowed the satellite to acquire images of the Earth day or night, in all weather conditions and even through cloud cover, smoke and haze. RADARSAT-1 provided useful information to both commercial and scientific users in such fields as disaster management, interferometry, agriculture, cartography, hydrology, forestry, oceanography, ice studies and coastal monitoring. As a result, RADARSAT-1 has proven to be an invaluable source of Earth observation data. The satellite’s images were used internationally to manage and monitor the Earth’s resources and to monitor global climate change, as well as in many other commercial and scientific applications. Because of this project Canada is now a world leader in the processing of satellite remote sensing data, thanks in part to RADARSAT-1. RADARSAT-1 was able to scan images in swaths 18 km to 500 km wide with a resolution of 1 m – 100m, depending on the operational mode. This satellite was knocked out of orbit in March 2013 and is no longer operational. Nevertheless it had an operational lifecycle of 17 years.

A diagram of Radarsat -1.


Radarsat-2 was a next-generation, commercial radar satellite which was launched in December 2007. This platform offered powerful technical advancements that enhanced marine surveillance, ice monitoring, disaster management, environmental monitoring, resource management and mapping in Canada and around the world. This project represented a unique collaboration between government and industry. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) for instance, owns and operates this satellite and the ground segment. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) helped fund the construction and launch of the satellite and is now recovering this investment through the supply of RADARSAT-2 data to the Government of Canada during the lifetime of the mission.

An image of Radarsat-2


RADARSAT-SCM represents an evolution of the RADARSAT Program with the objective of ensuring data continuity, improved operational use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and improved system reliability. This satellite was launched on June 12, 2019 will establish a three-satellite configuration which will provide daily revisits of Canada’s vast territory and maritime approaches, as well as daily access to 90% of the world’s surface. (Visit the CSA RadarSat story for further details)

RADARSAT-SCM deployment in space, an artist’s conception.


The first small satellite was SCISAT-1 which was developed by Bristol Aerospace (now Magellan) and was launched in 2003. Its main instruments are an optical Fourier transform infrared spectrometer, the ACE-FTS Instrument, and an ultraviolet spectrophotometer, MAESTRO. These devices record spectra of the Sun, as sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, making analyses of the chemical elements of the atmosphere possible. This satellite and its instruments are still operating 16 years after launch.

SCISAT – 1 under construction. Note the clean room elements being used – gloves, breathing masks and hair/beard nets.


The next small satellite to be launched by Canada was CASSIOPE, or CAScade, Smallsat and IOnospheric Polar Explorer. This multi-mission satellite is operated by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). The satellite was launched in September 2013 and is the first Canadian hybrid satellite to carry a dual mission in the fields of telecommunications and scientific research. The main objective for CASSIOPE is to gather information to better understand the science of space weather, while verifying high-speed communications concepts through the use of advanced space technologies. CASSIOPE has a unique elliptical polar orbit which ranges from 330 to 1400 km above the earth.

An artist’s conception of CASSIOPE

Development of MicroSatellites

Following along with the previous small satellite developments was another shift to microsatellites and its role in Canada’s Space program. The first of these microsatellites was MOST.


MOST was launched in June 2003 at a cost of $10 million. As a result of this project, Canada has become a leader in the field of micro satellites. MOST stands for “microvariability and oscillations of stars”.  This type of data has now been collected over a decade. Interestingly MOST was also the first telescope in space! This satellite was supported by CSA until 2014, after which it was turned over to a private concern, where it continues to function to today.  MOST is positioned in an orbit 820 km or so in space.

MOST can look at stars in distant constellations for many days at a time, due to its design and assignment parameters.


In February 2013, another microsatellite, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) was launched. This satellite is the world’s first space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites. NEOSSat circles the globe every 100 minutes, scanning space near the Sun to pinpoint asteroids that may someday pass close to Earth. NEOSSat is also sweeping the skies in search of satellites and space debris as part of Canada’s commitment to keeping orbital space safe for everyone.

NEOSSat scanning the space for debris, satellites and asteroids.


A more recent microsatellite development in which Canadians had a role was in the M3MSat (Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite). This is a tele-detection satellite, launched in 2016, that was developed by the Canadian Space Agency. Its mission is to demonstrate and test the technology to assess the utility of having in space an Automatic Identification System (AIS) for reading signals from vessels, so as to better manage marine transport in Canadian waters.  The system will be supported by an instrument called a Low Data Rate Service (LDRS), which transmits AIS messages to ground sensors. This satellite will orbit the earth at an altitude of 650 km. M3MSat has a mass of 85kg and while having a volume of only about .3 m3

Canada’s Role in Supporting the HUBBLE Telescope Replacement Program

Dr Ferguson concluded his presentation with a discussion about the replacement for Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990).


The Hubble replacement will be named the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and is currently under construction. (For more information visit the JWSP website at: https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/)  The JWST will provide greatly improved resolution and sensitivity over the Hubble and will enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy and cosmology. One of its major goals is observing some of the most distant events and objects in the universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies. This telescope will launch in March 2021 and the total program cost here is estimated to approach $10Billion.  The size of this satellite will be 20 x 14 meters and will have a mass of 6500kg. Its power requirement will also be some 2000 watts. This contrasts significantly with some of the satellites discussed earlier.

JWST under construction. Note the scale and size of this clean room compared to earlier pictures in this presentation.


The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is providing the JWST’s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), as well as one of the telescope’s four science instruments – the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Both of these instruments were designed, built and tested for the CSA by COM DEV International in Ottawa and Cambridge, Ontario, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal and the National Research Council of Canada along with and scientific guidance from the FGS science team. The CSA’s contribution guarantees Canadian astronomers a share of observing time once the telescope launches.

An artist’s representation of the James Webb Space Telescope in deployed state.

Dr. Phil Ferguson is an Industrial Research Chair at the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Engineering – Department of Mechanical Engineering. This research chair is sponsored by both the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Magellan Aerospace. Phil’s research work aims to improve the reliability and accessibility of space technology through research into new satellite control and manufacturing technologies. Phil has made many presentations to Manitobans about his work since his appointment. We have yet to see any duplication in these presentations, and every presentation is enlightening.  If you are invited to attend one of these sessions, you will truly be enlightend!