Satellites make good neighbours

A lot of fuss is being made of the Apollo 11 landing of a man on the moon one-half century ago but not so much about Canada’s launch of the Alouette 1 at the same time. Canada was a leader in space -the third in the world to launch a satellite.

Alouette 1. Image: National Post

And Canada was the first to launch a satellite in 1972 that would allow television broadcasts to be broadcast from coast-to-coast-to coast: the Anik A1.

Anik A1 personally affected me. As a microwave technician, I worked on microwave stations that used to be to only way to get signals across Canada. Now the microwave system had been made redundant by the Anik A1.

As more countries launched satellites, their use expanded beyond communication to rescue. This capability is especially important for countries in the Arctic Circle like Canada where populations are sparse and the environment harsh.

Canada, France, the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperated to pool the resources of dozens of satellites. The first rescue took place in 1982 in northern B.C. just weeks after the Soviet Union launched COSPAS-1.

With the belligerence of the current U.S. administration, it’s hard to imagine that they could cooperate on anything.  But the original agreement, forged when tensions with the USSR were high, is still in force. Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, says:

“Yet, satellites-based search and rescue exists only because of a remarkable exercise in Cold-War co-operation (Globe and Mail, July 27, 2019).”

After the Cold War ended, co-operation continued with joint military exercises between Arctic countries. One, called Vigilant Eagle, had U.S., Russian, and Canadian jets responding to a mock hijacking of a commercial aircraft.

After a South Korean fishing trawler sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea in 2014, Russia requested help from the U.S. Coast guard which sent help immediately.

Russia has been a major contributor to the International Space Station and last month, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques returned from the station in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Despite tensions with China, the Chinese tech giant Huawei is working in partnership with Canadian internet providers to launch satellites to improve connectivity in Canada’s north. Without the new satellites, two million Canadians in Arctic communities don’t have reliable high-speed internet.

Unlike the old technology, the new satellites will be placed in a much lower orbit. Traditional satellites have two problems. One is the low bandwidth because of the curvature of the Earth. The other is “latency,” that’s the delay in getting signals to and from the satellite. You may have noticed it in TV broadcasts where the foreign correspondent stands in silence after being asked a question –they are waiting for signals to bounce around the globe.

The Trudeau government recently announced that it is investing $85 million to build a Low Earth Orbit constellation of 120 satellites in Canada’s north. At only 1,000 kilometres above the ground, latency is not a problem and since the satellites can be networked, bandwidth is as good as optical fibre.

It’s a good investment, not only because it connects Canada’s rapidly warming North with the rest of the country but because the sale of high-speed internet service a lucrative business.