Communications Glitch Mars Commercial Camera Installation on Space Station

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WASHINGTON ­— A pair of Earth-observing cameras owned by Canada’s UrtheCast Corp. failed to perform as expected after their installation outside the international space station’s (ISS) Zvezda module, prompting Russian cosmonauts to bring the hardware back inside the orbiting outpost while engineers on the ground work on a fix.

Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy mounted the UrtheCast cameras — one video, one still — on a mobile platform on exterior of the main Russian space station module during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. However, no communications link could be established with either camera, the company said in a Dec. 30 press release. 

“[T]he Mission Control Centre (MCC) outside of Moscow was unable to receive any data from either camera,” UrtheCast wrote in the release. “Without this data, engineers in the MCC were not able to confirm that the cameras were receiving the power necessary to allow them to survive the temperature fluctuations of the space environment.”

“The fact the neither camera could communicate with the MCC strongly suggests that the problem lies inside the ISS and it is not a problem with the cameras or external cables,” UrtheCast Chief Technology Officer George Tyc said in the press release. 

Whatever the cause, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company expects to update the timetable for a second installation attempt “by mid-January or sooner as information becomes available,” according to the Dec. 30 statement. The date will be announced once RSC Energia, Russia’s main human spaceflight contractor and UrtheCast’s chief Russian partner, completes its review of the Dec. 27 spacewalk.

Once installed, the cameras will require a few months of on-orbit checkout, UrtheCast Chief Executive Scott Larson told SpaceNews in November. The cameras were launched to station Nov. 25 aboard a Russian Progress freighter. 

Despite the delay, UrtheCast expects “little or no material impact on its business plan for 2014,” the Dec. 30 statement said. The company had planned to make free still images available to the public beginning in the spring. 

UrtheCast was founded in 2011. The company, which is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, plans to make what it calls “near-live” still imagery captured from the space station’s orbit available for free on its website. Paying customers will get direct imaging feeds.