SAN FRANCISCO — The original idea for UrtheCast was simple: Place a couple of webcams on the international space station and stream the images over the Internet.
That was the plan before UrtheCast’s Russian partner, RSC Energia, offered to install the cameras on a moveable platform attached to the space station’s Zvezda service module. UrtheCast executives then decided to replace one of the still cameras with a video camera.
Every step of the way, the UrtheCast venture became “much more involved, much more complex, but also significantly better,” said Scott Larson, president of Vancouver, British Columbia-based UrtheCast (pronounced “EarthCast”).
Now the company is in full-scale engineering. RAL Space, part of the United Kingdom Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, is fabricating two cameras: a 5-meter-resolution still camera and a 5.5-meter-resolution video camera. Canada’s MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) is developing payload data electronics. MDA-built hardware will be used to transfer data from the cameras to the UrtheCast downlink, said David Hargreaves, MDA vice president and general manager for intelligence and surveillance.
UrtheCast Inc. at a Glance
Mission: To provide the world’s first live, high-definition video feed of Earth from space.
Top Official: Scott Larson, President
Established: January 2011
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia
UrtheCast plans to stream the still images online to provide viewers with a continuous view of Earth directly below the space station. At the same time, the company plans to use the high-resolution video camera to focus on large-scale events and activities as it acquires imagery at a rate of 3.25 frames per second.
“The video camera is certainly unique,” Larson said. UrtheCast plans to use the video camera to show major sporting events, natural disasters or large-scale public protests like the ones that occurred during the Arab Spring. “You would be able to see the scale and scope of the crowds,” Larson said.
UrtheCast hopes to use that imagery to attract viewers, sponsors and advertisers. A sporting goods company, for example, might opt to sponsor video imagery of sporting events, Larson suggested. Or a company like Starbucks might pay to make its logo appear on the roof of every building that houses one of its cafes, he said. In addition, UrtheCast plans to sell imagery to many of the commercial businesses such as agriculture and mining that currently purchase satellite imagery to monitor activity.
Private investors are providing initial financing for the UrtheCast venture. The company completed its first round of financing in April and plans to undertake a larger, second round this summer. Larson declined to comment on the amount of money raised to date, but said the firm intends to raise $15 million.
RAL Space plans to deliver the cameras to UrtheCast this fall. Next, the cameras will be sent to Russia, where engineers will conduct preflight certification, safety analysis and training to ensure that cosmonauts know how to install the cameras.
RSC Energia and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, approved preliminary plans to install the UrtheCast cameras on the space station in a resolution signed Oct. 11, 2011, that highlights the benefit the imagery will provide to Russian agencies charged with emergency response, economic development, trade and education. The document, signed by Roscosmos Deputy Head Vitaly Davydov and RSC Energia General Designer Vitaly Lopota, gives RSC Energia authority to prepare a contract “envisioning the delivery of the telescopes with the relevant equipment to Russia, their integration and installation on board ISS [Russian Segment]” that will be submitted to Roscosmos for final approval.
By early 2013, UrtheCast plans to complete installation of the cameras and associated hardware on the Zvezda service module so the company can begin capturing imagery, compressing the data and sending them directly to ground stations through a high-speed X-band downlink on the Russian segment of the space station. UrtheCast plans to process the data on the ground before broadcasting it on the Web. That means viewers will see images somewhere between “a few minutes and a couple of hours” after they are captured by space-based cameras, Larson said.
In December, UrtheCast acquired GroundMap, a company based in San Francisco that established a social media platform that lets users tag information with its geographic location. “Their job is to take the data we get from space and figure out how to present it, how to make it compelling and how to turn it into a social media platform,” Larson said.
UrtheCast executives are confident that anyone with a computer will visit its website at least once to view recent images of Earth. The challenge, Larson said, is to create a website people will visit “five times a day.” With that goal in mind, UrtheCast is developing an interactive website.
“People will be able to go to the website, see a recent image of Earth as it spools by and enter their address,” Larson said. “They will be able to detect changes, seeing how a house, river or farm changed over the last year.”
Viewers will be able to learn the next time the cameras are scheduled to pass overhead and plan activities large enough to be spotted from space. For example, a crowd of people could “walk outside in white shirts and spell out, ‘I love Canada’ or ‘Will you marry me?’ on a green field,” Larson said.
The UrtheCast website also will enable viewers to upload imagery. “If you are inside the Sistine Chapel, you take a video, tag it and upload it,” Larson said. “The next time someone types in Sistine Chapel, Italy, they get a top-down view showing the neighborhood, the location and all the inside views.”
UrtheCast’s goal is to gather so much imagery that it enables people to follow a location in the same way that Facebook and Twitter allow them to follow a person. “This unique venture will bring imagery and video from the international space station right into the homes and schools of the public,” Richard Holdaway, RAL Space director, said in a May 22 email. “UrtheCast will do for Planet Earth what Facebook is doing for Social media.”
UrtheCast also plans to encourage software developers to create games, applications, contests and educational tools using its imagery. “People will make all kinds of applications,” Larson said. “Some will be cool. Some will be boring. The whole point is to make the site compelling so people come back to it.”