With a background in finance and no aerospace experience, Scott Larson might seem like an unlikely chief executive for UrtheCast, the company preparing to stream high-resolution imagery from cameras mounted on the outside of the international space station. That background has proved helpful, however, ever since Larson’s brother Wade and George Tyc approached him in 2009 with the initial idea for the company.
At the time, Wade Larson and Tyc, who were working for Canada’s MDA Ltd., knew their employer was likely to rebuff a Russian space agency proposal to install cameras on the orbiting outpost. They approached Scott Larson to find out whether he thought the cameras sounded like a good idea and if he could help raise enough money to investigate the merits of establishing a company for the job.
“I thought it was a spectacular idea and said I think we can cobble together the initial $500,000 to take a trip to Russia, do a feasibility study and see if we can get some traction,” Larson said.
Since that initial study, UrtheCast has come a long way with the help of high-profile partners. RAL Space, part of the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, built a medium-resolution still camera designed to observe 45-kilometer swaths with a resolution of 5 meters and a 1-meter resolution video camera. MDA developed the electronics needed to transfer data from the cameras to the ground. RSC Energia and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, delivered the cameras to the space station and oversaw their installation on the exterior of the space station’s Zvezda service module.
That installation occurred twice. After the first attempt in December failed, Russian cosmonauts tried again on Jan. 27. After the second installation, Larson spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What went wrong the first time the cameras were installed?
The cosmonauts took the cameras outside the space station. They installed them. That went fine. When they went to plug in the power, they realized there wasn’t any data coming back from either of the cameras, which was probably OK except they couldn’t determine if the cameras were powered up, which was not OK. The point there being the cameras can’t be outside for too long without having power because then they get too cold. They tried all kinds of stuff to determine if the cameras were powered up but realized they couldn’t be sure. So they decided to make the expensive decision to bring the cameras back inside the space station. There, they found the connectivity issue. They came up with a solution, implemented the solution and tested it.
Why was it an expensive decision to bring cameras back inside?
Because they had to schedule another spacewalk and spacewalks take up a lot of resources in space and on the ground. They are big productions. We appreciated the difficult decision they made.
Do you pay for spacewalks?
We do not.
Were you disappointed after the December spacewalk?
Yes we were disappointed. We want everything to go incredibly smoothly without any bumps in the road. But the reality is, it’s space. And space is kind of tricky. So stuff like this happens in space.
The fact that the cameras are on the space station, a manned platform, creates a little bit of flexibility with regards to what we can do. If stuff happens, cosmonauts can fix it either inside or outside. If the cameras were on an unmanned satellite, then it would be an awful lot trickier.
How did the second spacewalk go?
It was a six-plus-hour spacewalk. Our cameras were installed in the first three hours. They were installed a little faster than planned, I guess because it was the second time they’d done it.
What was it like watching the second spacewalk?
It was surreal. We were having a pancake breakfast in Vancouver as those two cosmonauts were on the outside of the international space station flying around space at 17,000 miles an hour [27,600 kilometers per hour] installing our cameras. We were drinking our lattes and they’re hurtling through space. We were just watching the live feed like everyone else. We had four engineers in Moscow in Mission Control Central doing their best to keep us up to date.
Do the cameras work?
The cosmonauts plugged in the video camera. That went on fine. We got the first bits and bytes of data back and forth. We got initial telemetry down. That all was good. Then the cosmonauts went to work on the medium-resolution camera. They had a connection issue there. So they had to swap out a connector outside of space station and hook in a new one. That went fine.
The installation was a success. We are getting data back from both cameras and we will continue to update the market and everyone else as we move forward through commissioning.
When will you be able to say more about camera performance?
We are a public company, so we can’t say anything that hasn’t been properly released through the stock exchange.
Has UrtheCast attracted customers?
Yes. Everybody wants more pictures of Earth from space but pictures are expensive because satellites are expensive. It’s not unusual to hear of satellites costing several hundred million dollars and even upwards of $600 million or $700 million. For us, because of our relationship with Roscosmos, it’s entirely different. Our capital expenditure on the cameras was about $17 million. So we can get creative in terms of what we do with the pictures: how we put them out, how we sell them, how we price them. We have all kinds of flexibility in terms of what we do. We think we can grow the market beyond the typical government buyer. We can expand the commercial sector and start to reach consumers.
When do you plan to begin providing your customers with imagery?
By the end of May we expect to begin getting into revenue with our customers and supplying them with video and still imagery in a slow stage initially. We will slowly start to ramp up from there.
What’s your plan for reaching consumers?
We expect Internet streaming to begin mid-fall. We don’t have a hard date on it because it depends on a bunch of stuff. But we expect to launch the Web platform, which is more consumer facing, sometime in the fall. That’s going to be dependent on all kinds of things.
What kinds of things?
We want to make sure we have enough data. We want to make sure we have the proper infrastructure in place. We think that when we turn that streaming on, it will be spectacular. We think we will be swamped with demand. We think we will begin to capture imagery everyone is going to want to see. So we have to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to handle what might happen there.
Space is popular again. Ten or 15 years ago, no one really cared. But now they do. It’s because of the growing commercial sector: SpaceX, Planet Labs, Skybox and companies planning to mine asteroids. We fit into that. There’s always been a segment of the population that was interested in space. That segment is growing. Space is reaching the masses.
Did your finance background come in handy?
Yes. During the first six months after we incorporated around Christmas 2010, we had to make sure we had the relationship with our Russian partners figured out. Then we had to figure out who was going to build the cameras. Then we spent the next 18 months raising money. Before we went public last summer, we’d raised about $11 million. We weren’t quite sure of the cost of the cameras. So my background was helpful.’