Today it's commonplace to see color pictures from space that are so sharp you can count the cars on the road — but can you watch those cars move? Now you can, thanks to UrtheCast's high-definition videos from the International Space Station.
The Canada-based company's first Ultra HD views made their online debut on Wednesday.
"These are the world's first full-color HD videos of Earth from space," said Scott Larson, the CEO and co-founder of UrtheCast (pronounced like "Earth-Cast").
That claim comes with a caveat: For more than a year, the space station's High Definition Earth-Viewing System, or HDEV, has been capturing HD video clips in orbit.
Technically speaking, an Ultra HD display has twice the resolution of your typical 1,920-by-1,080-pixel HD monitor, in length as well as height. That makes the picture 3,840 pixels wide. It's just shy of the 4,000-pixel mark that gives "4K" video its name — but the two terms are often used interchangeably.
This week the space agency uploaded its first 4K Ultra HD highlight reel to its ReelNASA YouTube channel — and there will be more to follow. But HDEV's high-definition camera is set to wide angle, while UrtheCast's Iris camera focuses in for telephoto-style video clips of Earth's surface in Ultra HD.
Another caveat: UrtheCast's 1-meter resolution isn't quite as good as the best available commercial satellite photos — specifically, the 30-centimeter imagery from DigitalGlobe's WorldView 3 satellite.
But we're talking here about videos, not stills. When you're watching UrtheCast's newly released clips, you can track a boat as it sails down the Thames in London, or follow cars as they roll through Boston and Barcelona. You can't do that with a picture from WorldView 3.
UrtheCast's Iris high-definition camera and its Theia medium-resolution camera were brought up to the space station in 2013, and installed by Russian spacewalkers on the Zvezda module after a few snags. Iris is mounted on a bi-axial pointing platform that follows the camera's target on Earth as it passes under the station at 17,000 mph (27,000 kilometers per hour).
The moving video camera can document an area of about 6 square miles (15 square kilometers) in full-color video for 60 seconds, Larson said. Downlinking the video and putting it online can take "anywhere from a few hours ... to maybe a few hours more," he told NBC News.
Larson said the clips released Wednesday are just a foretaste of what will be available when Iris achieves "initial operation capability" in late July. Eventually, a Web-based platform will let users dial up HD video clips of specified locations — and find out when that location is due for its next close-up.
"You can see a picture of your house, taken over time, and at the same time find out when the camera is going to be over you next, so people will have time to plan their event," Larson said.
He imagined a time when romantic types could get people lined up to spell out the words "I LOVE YOU" just as the space station was passing over — and then share the video with their boyfriends or girlfriends as part of a marriage proposal. (Individuals can't be seen in the 1-meter-resolution Iris imagery, but the camera can make out gatherings of people.)
UrtheCast's motivation isn't strictly romantic: The company intends to make money selling Ultra HD video from space to paying customers. Such imagery could be used for monitoring crop growth, environmental hazards, oil and gas fields, disaster zones and international hot spots — or for business purposes that aren't typically associated with satellite imagery.
"We can allow developers to make games, apps and screensavers using this video," Larson said.
Larson expects to shake up the market for satellite imagery with prices that range from $4 and $30 per square kilometer of image area. "It's easy to spend $20,000 for a real-time picture of Earth from space," he said. "Our cost is way cheaper, but the vast majority of our imagery is going to be available for free online."
The company already has struck a deal to have some of its video included in a short film for the Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign. And that's just the beginning: If Larson has his way, high-definition video clips from space could become as ubiquitous as, say, cola commercials.
"We think everybody is going to watch," he said.