Ask any astronaut about the view from space and you're likely to get the same answer: The Earth is a gorgeous, crystal-clear eyeful.
But for most of us on the ground, it’s a perspective not easily within reach. But that may change with a Canadian firm's quest to provide high-definition (HD) video views of Earth from space.
The Calgary-based company, UrtheCast (pronounced "EarthCast") is working with the Russia aerospace company RSC Energia to build, launch, install and operate two cameras on the Russian module of the International Space Station. The two Urthecast cameras — one medium-resolution and one high-resolution — are being built by the U.K.'s Rutherford Appleton Laboratories.
Energia is targeting a 2012 launch for the cameras. Once they're installed on the space station, their video of the Earth will be beamed to ground stations around the planet, and then displayed in near real-time on the UrtheCast Web platform or distributed directly to the company’s exclusive partners and customers.
According to officials, imagery produced from the space station will provide a 40 kilometer wide, high-resolution, color image down to as close as 3.6 feet (1.1 meters). The firm’s Web platform will allow users to constantly track the location of the ISS, anticipating when it will pass over a particular geographic location. Users will be able to search for videos of a particular location, type or theme.
Fast forwarding Earth, pause, skip, rewind
"It's going to be a bit of a blend between Google Earth and YouTube," said Scott Larson, UrtheCast’s co-founder and president. "When you look at Google Earth, you’re basically seeing static images. What you're seeing with us is you’re seeing an image of the Earth scrolling by. So you will be able to fast-forward, pause, skip, rewind … you’ll be able to tag those videos,” he said.
Like a personal video recorder, users will have the ability to interact with the HD video feed in real time as it is fed from company servers. Those using the system will be able to zoom in and out, virtually steer the camera from side to side, rewind, and fast forward as they check out areas and things of interest on Earth.
"Imagine Google Earth on steroids," said Cameron Chell, co-founder and director of UrtheCast's Web platform development. "It has the ability to capture political, environmental, economic or sporting events at potentially any given time."
"This is going to affect more than the individual ... it's going to affect Earth," predicted Chell.
Beautiful oasis in space
UrtheCast was officially launched on June 28 at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. As part of the kickoff ceremonies, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams provided an off-Earth view of looking at our planet.
"The Earth is a truly remarkable place …. and a beautiful oasis in space — there's nothing like it," Williams said. "We have been blessed with such an incredible opportunity to make sure we protect the Earth for future generations. What better way to do that than to help people on Earth be able to experience the beauty of our planet first-hand by providing them with HD video?"
Users will also be able to log onto the site for free, Larson said.
"The site will be free to use," Larson said. "We will be incorporating a sponsorship/advertising component that will allow us to recoup the investment, but certainly the site will be free to use."
The total financing requirement to build, launch and install the video cameras on the International Space Station is priced at about $3 million. Also part of the venture is Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., providing software, project management and engineering know-how to the endeavor.
"We are now in full production and engineering mode on the cameras, and actually we just returned from a series of technical meetings in Moscow," Larson told Space.com. "From an engineering standpoint, things are going well and generally on track. Our Russian partners have confirmed that they want to take the cameras up in the late spring or early summer of 2012, so that is the schedule we are working around."
In the meantime, Larson said that the group is working on the ground segment and determining how best to process and present the imagery from the cameras when the imagery gets on the ground.
"It is both challenging and exciting at the same time and the scope of the project is so broad that there is a continual learning curve," he said.
As for how creative individual users might be in utilizing the equipment, Larson is bullish on the future.
"We think that they'll be very creative. People will do things like mow messages into crop fields, make up giant banners or have groups of people spelling out their messages," Larson suggested.
At the same time, people will also develop applications that allow users to interact with the video, Larson added.
"These apps might include programs that facilitate geo-caching, education, or geography. Our job is just to get the cameras up and then present the video and pictures in a clean, user-friendly manner," Larson said. "The site users will determine what they want to do with it and how to make it compelling. That is what I’m excited about seeing."
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of this year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for Space.com since 1999.