Jun 16, 2015

UrtheCast to launch online video feed of Earth from ISS

Get ready for the ultimate reality show: It’s the whole world, all the time, in high definition and in colour.

Estimated Article Reading Time: 2 min.

UrtheCast Corp., a Vancouver-based company that has staked out the high ground – literally – in its bid to open up the Earth observation industry, says it is ready to switch on a continuous video feed of the planet from the International Space Station. The feed will be available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Urthecast operates two cameras that cosmonauts installed on the Russian portion of the space station in December, 2013. One camera captures still photos and one streams 8K ultra-high-definition video, a format with about 16 times the picture quality of conventional high-definition television. It can spot objects as small as one metre across and can track and keep a particular location in frame for up to three minutes.

“We’re excited to see what people will do with it,” said Scott Larson, the company’s CEO. Once the service is running, it will be possible for users to plan ahead along the station’s orbital path and book the camera to target and capture sites of interest, or even stage events that can be seen from space.

“Imagine your buddies in white shirts on a green field spelling out, ‘Will you marry me?’” Mr. Larson said. “People are going to be interacting with the space station when it is passing up above.”

The raw video will be streamed free of charge. Made-to-order requests and packaging of remote sensing data are where the company expects to turn a profit.

Public fascination with images of Earth from space date back to the 1960s, when astronauts involved in the lead-up to the first lunar landings trained film cameras on the home planet with results that were spectacular for the time. The famous “blue marble” photo that was the first to show the fully illuminated Earth in one frame was taken by crew members of Apollo 17 on their way to the moon in 1972. It quickly became an icon of the environmental movement. Landsat 1, the first civilian satellite dedicated to looking back at Earth, was launched the same year.

But high-definition video brings a new dimension to what has, until now, been a relatively selective and static way of looking down on the planet. Sample clips from Urthecast set to be released on Wednesday show the planet in action, rather than as a snapshot. Cars can be seen zipping down highways in cities like Boston, London and Barcelona, boats tool up and down waterways, while skyscrapers shift slightly as the station changes position overhead.

Now that the cameras have been commissioned, Mr. Larson said he expects the video feed to be available in late July. Although the video stream will not be transmitted instantly, the company says it hopes to have it online within a few hours. Two more cameras are scheduled to be installed on the space station in 2017.

Mr. Larson said that Urthecast was based on the thinking that most people would want to see the planet in a way that now is possible for only those who are lucky enough to spend time aboard the space station.

“At the core of this is a desire to take that same experience astronauts have and stream it over the web … and see if we can impact how the rest of us look at Earth.”