Canada's first satellite was called Alouette. When Canada launched Alouette on September 29, 1962, Canada became the third country in the world to have a satellite in orbit, after the Soviet Union and the United States.
Alouette was an atmospheric studies satellite. Canadian scientists had been studying the ionosphere, an electrically charged layer of the atmosphere, from the Earth for many years. At this time, before communications satellites, radio signals could be transmitted over long distances by bouncing them off the ionosphere. But communicating this way is unreliable because the signals are often disrupted when the aurora borealis (also called northern lights) occur. To learn more about this phenomenon, scientists needed to probe the ionosphere from above as well as below. This was the purpose of Alouette.
Originally, Alouette was going to be an instrument package that would ride on an American satellite. At the suggestion of Dr. John Chapman from the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment, however, Alouette became a full-blown Canadian satellite.
Alouette performed much better than everyone expected. Its intended lifespan was one year, but Alouette sent down information about the ionosphere for ten full years. Alouette produced over one million images of the top side of the ionosphere. The satellite was so successful that it even won an award. On January 22, 1987, the Engineering Centennial Board Inc. recognized Alouette as one of the ten most outstanding achievements of Canadian engineering over the last one hundred years.
Alouette might look simple by modern standards, but it brought Canada respect and attention from the international space community. It also set the stage for many other Canadian achievements in space. Even today, satellites are the central project of the Canadian space industry.