Saturday, May 09, 2015

Newfoundland and Labrador: A Communications Centre Moves into the Space Age

          By Glen Strom

Newfoundland and Labrador's role in communications began over 300 years ago with signal flags and continues today with radio communications into low Earth orbit.

The satellite tracking ground station in St. John's operated by The Electronic Centre, a Newfoundland based firm. It's part of a larger, world-wide tracking system which co-ordinates the cargo travelling to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The facilities are anticipated to grow substantially over the next few years in tandem with the expected expansion of privately owned commercial spaceflight contractors like SpaceX. Photo c/o CBC.

One of the tracking stations for the April 14th, 2015 Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) flight carrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) was in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

As noted in an April 17, 2015 article at CBC News, “Kenmount Road company assists in SpaceX flight to space station,” when the St. John's tracking station acquired the signal for the SpaceX Dragon capsule, a man with a distinctive Newfoundland accent said, “acquisition signal Newfoundland, Canada.”

According to the Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada page at the web site Canada’s Historic Places, Signal Hill in St. John’s was a site for military communications during the periods 1660-1697, 1697-1870, World War I, and World War II.

The web site notes that Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, built between 1898-1900, was used as a flag signalling tower until 1958. From 1933 to 1949 the Canadian Marconi Company operated a wireless station there. From 1949 to 1960, the Canadian Department of Transport operated the station.

Cabot Tower, part of the Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada. Photo c/o Parks Canada Agency/Agence Parcs Canada, F. Bergeson, NFPO. Collection/011.

Signal Hill is just one location that has a place in Newfoundland’s communications history. The town of Heart’s Content is another.

The 19th Century Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Heart’s Content was the western terminus of the first transatlantic telegraph cable connecting North America to Europe. The site was active for almost 100 years up until its closing in 1965.

Newfoundland played a crucial role in establishing the next advancement in communications. The Marconi page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Signal Hill was the site where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901 from Poldhu, Cornwall, England.

Marconi at Signal Hill in December 1901. To the right are instruments used to receive the first transatlantic signals. Photo c/o Marconi Company, Marconi Jubilee 1897-1947 (Chelmsford, England: Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company Limited, 1947).

This wasn't Marconi’s only achievement in Newfoundland. The wireless station he built at Cape Race in 1904 is known for receiving the distress signal from the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic after it hit an iceberg and sank.

Marconi’s next success occurred in 1920 when he established wireless communications with the SS Victorian at a distance of about 1,931 km (1,200 miles) from St. John’s.

Another first for Newfoundland came in telephone communications. The Post-1949 Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site outlines the role Newfoundland played in the laying of the first transatlantic submarine telephone cable in 1955.

SS Great Eastern at Heart's Content in 1866. The ship had just finished laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable from Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. Photo courtesy of  Library and Archives Canada (C-004484). Photographer unknown. 

Besides the previously mentioned connection to space flight, Newfoundland has been a testing ground for space-based communications systems. The NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) lists a  January 1, 1995 NASA report describing a joint Canadian-American research project testing alternative means of communicating in the far north. The team tested signals between a Canadian ice breaker and a ground station in St. John’s by way of a low-Earth-orbit satellite.

Newfoundland is also a meeting place for communication professionals. The 36th Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing will take place from June 8th - 11th, 2015 in St. John’s. The 9th symposium took place in St. John’s in 1984.

Glen Strom
Newfoundland has a long history of firsts in the communications world. From signal flags to spaceship tracking, Newfoundland will continue to play a leading role in Earth-based and low-Earth-orbit communications—and perhaps beyond.

Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.

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