The northern lights  (aurora borealis) travel in the same aerospace as radio waves – that thin layer of the atmosphere between 20 and 200 miles above the earth.  The radio interference caused by the northern lights sparked an industry, built a city, and developed a world-renowned research center in Manitoba’s North.


In the 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, any phenomena interfering with radio waves were considered a threat to national security and the U.S. Army was keen to research the matter. The only problem was that the aurora belt lies across inaccessible areas of tundra and is not easily probed. Churchill in northern Manitoba, is not only a location of maximum aurora borealis activity, but in 1957 it was also close to established supply routes (rail and sea, as well as air). These factors combined to make Churchill the ideal location for aerospace research. 

In 1954, the Churchill Rocket Research Range was established as a northern base of operations for the U.S. Army’s sounding rocket research program. (Rockets can access the low ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere beyond the reach of research balloons and too low for satellites.)  By 1957 the U.S. Army had already fired 95 rockets from the Churchill Research Range.


The Winnipeg plant of Bristol Aero-Industries was in the business of aircraft overhaul and component manufacturing. In addition to its experience in the manufacture of welded high-strength steel components (such as jet engine after-burners), Bristol had the technological depth, the manufacturing base, and convenient access to the Churchill rocket range.

Bristol launched its first Black Brant sounding rocket (named after the Canada Goose species) from Churchill in 1959.  Black Brants carry payloads up to 1,800 pounds to altitudes of 1,000 miles providing up to 20 minutes for micro-gravity experiments, auroral studies, deep space observations, aeronomy (the study of the upper atmosphere), astronomy, plasma physics and solar physics, and other studies that don’t require orbital launches. Black Brant, which went through 12 model versions, has earned a vehicle success rate of 98 per cent since 1962.

Black Brant established Bristol’s reputation in the scientific market. It also cemented a long and successful collaboration with NASA.  Since that first launch in 1959, almost 600 of these Manitoba-made rockets have been launched, most recently at the White Sands Missile range in New Mexico in August of 2010.

In 2011, Black Brant rockets are still part of Bristol Aerospace’s product line with active contracts that support the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Group.


During its heyday, the Churchill Research Range, which involved up to 200 researchers and technicians, was Canada’s leading upper atmosphere research centre and a world-renowned facility for sounding rocket studies. At its peak, the military base and surrounding area had a population of up to 4,000 people.

The military base closed in 1964; the barracks and support buildings were razed. All that remains are the roads, which are now traversed by tourist-filled tundra buggies in search of polar bears.  Today, Churchill’s population is just under 1,000. The rocket site is now home to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, since it is ideally situated along the Hudson Bay seacoast where marine, northern boreal forest, and tundra meet.