What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Canada and space? Most people probably think of a Canadian astronaut like Marc Garneau or Roberta Bondar, or maybe of the Canadarm launching a satellite from the space shuttle. These are two important areas of Canada's involvement in the space industry, but they're not the only ones. Most Canadians working in the space industry are involved in projects concerning satellites. This is because satellites have helped Canada in many different ways.
In size, Canada is a huge country. Covering nearly 10 million square kilometers, it is the second largest nation in the world. This has always made it very difficult for people in different parts of the country to communicate. After Confederation, the Canadian government began building a railway that would link the country from east to west. Communication, however, was still difficult. Information could take weeks to travel from one part of the country to another. Also, the railway line did not go through northern Canada. Obviously another solution was needed to help all Canadians, especially those in the isolated and rural areas of the country, communicate with each other across the vast distances.
This solution came in the form of satellites. Canada successfully launched Alouette, its first satellite, in 1962. Alouette, and the ISIS satellites that followed, all studied the northern lights, or aurora borealis. In 1967, however, Dr. John Chapman, the leader of the Alouette team, published a report that changed the direction of Canada's space program. Chapman argued that Canada should use the knowledge gained through the Alouette and ISIS projects to improve communications in Canada.
This is exactly what happened. The focus of Canadian satellites shifted from scientific research to communications. In 1972, the Canadian firm Telesat Canada launched the Anik A1 satellite. With this launch, Canada became the first country in the world to have a satellite in geostationary orbit for domestic (that is, non-military) communications. Because Anik was in geostationary orbit, it remained over its target night and day. This meant that satellite dishes could be permanently mounted to point toward the satellite for both transmitting and receiving.
The Anik A1 satellite succeeded in bringing Canadians closer together. Live television was now possible everywhere in Canada. Telephone communications could be relayed from any part of the country to any other part. Today, the fifth generation Anik satellites are the largest, most poweful domestic communication satellites in the world. Anik, which means "brother" in the Inuit language Inuktitut, was well named because it brought Canadians closer together - like brothers.
Communication by television and telephone, though, is not the only way that satellites have helped Canadians. Satellites affect every Canadian's daily life in countless different ways.
Weather satellites transmit complex images of cloud patterns, allowing scientists to predict the weather much more accurately than they could if they only used data collected on the ground. This can warn city dwellers to cancel their picnic if it's going to rain. More importantly, this information can save the lives of fisherman at sea or icebreakers in the North by warning them if a storm is approaching.
Remote sensing satellites, such as Radarsat, can aid in research and resource management in agriculture, oceonography, forestry, hydrology, geology, cartography, and meteorology. Farmers can use satellite data to tell the difference between moist and dry soils. People can monitor pollution in the ocean, such as oil spills. Prospectors can use satellite images to explore for oil, gas, mineral, and water deposits. Remote sensing satellites can also measure the movement of icebergs.
You might be using a satellite right now, while you're reading this site. A new method of transmitting information on the Internet is to send the data by satellite, instead of over telephone or ISDN lines. Telesat Canada is beginning to provide this service, called DirecPC, by sending the information via their Anik satellites already in orbit.
Satellites have helped Canada communicate across vast distances and manage many natural resources. Individual Canadians are affected by satellites in their everyday lives. In the future, as Canada gains even more expertise in the field, it is certain that the applications of satellites will grow and continue to benefit the country.