Image: SpaceCam simulation
This simulated screenshot of the SpaceCam1 computerized image display shows real images from the international space station, including cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev at the ham-radio controls.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

The international space station also happens to be the world’s highest radio station — and now the groundwork is being laid for direct transmission of pictures as well as sound between Earth and outer space. The SpaceCam1 project could be up and running as soon as next year, amateur-radio volunteers say.

The radio system would be separate from the multibillion-dollar satellite network that NASA uses to communicate with the station. Although it’s called a slow-scan television system, SpaceCam1 can send only stills, and not full-motion video. But unlike NASA’s system, the SpaceCam1 feed would be freely accessible to schools and radio users around the world, said Miles Mann, one of the project’s managers.

“Anybody with a police scanner and a simple outdoor antenna will be able to receive images directly from the space station when we put them on the air,” Mann told MSNBC.com.

The project was developed jointly by Mann’s MAREX-MG club and by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, the volunteer effort that manages the orbital outpost’s ham operation.

With NASA’s blessing, space station astronauts use the amateur-radio equipment as an unofficial channel to chat with family, friends, operators and particularly school students. Just last week, a remote-controlled Progress cargo ship delivered new ham equipment to the station, and the SpaceCam1 equipment could go up on a similar Progress flight next January.

Frank Bauer, ARISS’ international chairman, said the slow-scan television system represents a significant step toward turning the space station into a full-fledged broadcast TV station.

“Some of the plans are to have a video capability several years down the road — a live video uplink and downlink,” he told MSNBC.com. “That’s some of the vision of where we’re going. I think we’ve got the foundation now.”

Hybrid medium
Slow-scan television, or SSTV, is a hybrid of audio, imagery and data that’s been around since the late 1950s. Shuttle astronauts traded the first ham-TV images back and forth in 1985, and Mann helped get Russia’s Mir space station wired for SSTV in 1998.

SpaceCam1 will be “a whole generation different,” Mann said: A standard-looking Webcam plugs into one of the astronauts’ laptops, and software translates the Webcam imagery into audio data. Those signals then pass through cables to the ham-radio equipment, which transmits the screech of data down to Earth. On the ground, radio receivers pick up the signals and pass them to a computer for conversion back into on-screen images.

Radio operators can use the same system to send imagery up to the space station. The signal range should be about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers), Mann said. SpaceCam1 transmissions will be compatible with SSTV software that is already being sold for terrestrial use, and Mann said a free “receive-only” version of the SpaceCam1 software would be made available over the Web.

Small package, big capability
Bauer said the only pieces of equipment that need to go up on the Progress are the cables and a hardware conversion device that’s smaller than a computer mouse.

Once the system is up and running, space station astronauts could point their Webcam out the window and set the software to send down the equivalent of a 2-by-3-inch (5-by-7.5-centimeter) image automatically every 2 minutes. They could send and receive snapshots, or beam down pictures of themselves while they’re chatting with schoolchildren on another ham frequency. Earthbound amateur-radio users could even use the space station as a relay station.

“Somebody in California could send a picture to somebody in New England just by communicating through the space station,” Bauer said.

If you include the value of all the volunteer labor, the cost of developing SpaceCam1 would be on the order of $50,000, Mann said. The components are currently being tested for spaceworthiness, and they’re due to be shipped to Russia in November. Mann had high praise for Bauer and the ARISS team, which built the hardware: “They did all the tons of paperwork. ... We could not get to space today without his team’s help.”

Bauer cautioned that the delivery of the equipment in January isn’t absolutely, positively guaranteed, since it’s up to space station managers to determine what supplies go on which flight. But whether SpaceCam1 goes live sooner or later, the system should give the general public better access to the view from space.

“The infrastructure that’s required to do a contact through the space agency channels is very expensive, and what’s done in the ham-radio community is very inexpensive, with a lot of volunteers,” he said.

The system also will give students more of a learning experience, Bauer said:

“The students are making the contact, the students are involved, the students are tracking the space station. ... It produces an element of teamwork, and as anybody knows, the only way you really learn is by doing it yourself.”

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