Canada: 50 Years in space

Canadarm2 is the high-tech mechanical arm used to deploy satellites from the cargo bay of the shuttles. (Supplied)

Canadarm2 is the high-tech mechanical arm used to deploy satellites from the cargo bay of the shuttles. (Supplied)

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will highlight some of the country’s many, and sometimes surprising, achievements in space at Scifest Africa March 18 in Grahamstown. Canada is not usually thought of as a leader in space programmes, but did you know that on September 29 2012 Canada celebrated 50 years of space activities that have propelled it into the ranks of world aerospace leaders. Canadian astronauts have also cumulatively notched up almost 500 days in space.

The exhibition, which has already been displayed in various centres in North America, fits in well with the Scifest Africa 2014 theme “Into the Space” . It is a collection of visually appealing photographs as well as a chronological study of a space programme that has had a successful past and a great future ahead. Canada has been a serious player in space almost from the beginning. It became the third nation ever to design and build a domestic satellite when the Alouette was put into orbit on September 29 1962.

The launch marked Canada’s entry into the space age and Canada was recognised by the scientific community as having the most advanced space programme at that time. Since that momentous occasion, Canada has excelled in the area of atmospheric sciences, communications, robotics, remote sensing and advanced technologies that support space exploration.


Arguably the best known Canadian achievement in space was its contribution to the American Space Shuttle programme and specifically the design and construction of Canadarm – the high-tech mechanical arm used to deploy satellites from the cargo bay of the shuttles. There were six versions of the space shuttle Canadarm and they all played an important role in the programme.  There was more than a little symbolism at play when the crew of US space shuttle mission STS-88 used Canadarm and the Canadian Space Vision System to join a Russian module with an American-built segment to initiate construction of the International Space Station (ISS).

Canada is also contributing to the development of the International Space Station with the Mobile Servicing System, which is helping astronauts build and service the ISS. The first part of this system, Canadarm2, was installed on the ISS in April 2001. The Mobile Base System was added the following year, and Dextre, or the Canada Hand, began operations on the station in 2008.  A special hand in hand feature of the amazing robotic arm known as the Canadarm2 is Canadian astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield. He was the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm, to walk in space, and has the one and only coveted title of guitar rock star from out of space. He commanded a huge international following through social media where he would record his life in space and share it with followers.

His mission may have ended in May 2013, but Hatfield still has audiences in television news and talk shows glued to their seats in absolute awe. Professor Andrew Yau from the University of Calgary, Canada will feature the Canadian’s CASSIOPE in his lecture at Scifest Africa at 1pm on March 14. CASSIOPE is a small satellite , designed by the Canadian Space Agency, to image ionosphere storms at a vey high resolution  and measure the associated disturbances of these storms. The Earth’s magnetic field shields our atmosphere from the harmful effects of the solar wind and other energetic particles emitted from the Sun.

But this shield is rather imperfect, and sometimes the solar wind penetrates the upper atmosphere or ionosphere. Fly into the eye of the storm with CASSIOPE and learn more about these super storms that fascinate the international space sciences community. To find out more, be sure to visit the "Canada in Space 50 Years" exhibition at Scifest Africa in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape from March 12 to 18 at the 1820 Settlers National Monument, Ground Floor, Art Gallery.

Scifest Africa is supported by the department of science and technology and is a project of the Grahamstown Foundation.

This article forms part of a supplement made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. The contents have been supplied and signed off by Scifest Africa.