April 01, 2013
Credit: Planetary Resources
While NASA and the U.S. Congress focus on using commercial vehicles to transport cargo and eventually crews to the International Space Station, an international groundswell of less visible but no less ambitious commercial-space concepts is materializing quietly—one idea at a time.
One example is set for launch Oct. 16 to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Progress resupply vehicle. The Canadian-led Urthecast venture plans to mount a pair of high-definition video cameras on a pointing platform attached to the station's Zvezda module, and give the world an astronaut's-eye view of Earth via streaming video over the Internet.
Anyone can take a free look at his rooftop or childhood playground, much as they can with Google Maps now. Paying customers will be able to order up the scenes they want, with 1.1-meter (3.6-ft.) resolution on the model of other commercial Earth-observation spacecraft. Also adding to Urthecast's bottom line will be an application that draws more on Silicon Valley than the traditional Earth-observation model.
“We'll do two things,” says Scott Larson, director and president of the Vancouver-based startup. “One is just a matter of getting as many people as we can to the website, and then looking for revenue streams off that. Of course, there are all kinds of them. And then, secondly, opening up the API [application programming interface], and letting other developers make games, apps and things like that, based on the API. Then you usually charge a certain amount per every time someone uses the API on some other app.”
Impetus for the enterprise came from the Russian government, which wanted a way to ensure it could get Earth-observation data from its investment in the ISS. Working through the Russian space agency Roscosmos, its ISS prime contractor RSC Energia and its own contractors, Urthecast has developed the camera and is training the crew that will install it on the Zvezda pointing platform.
From that vantage point it will not only be able to cover the Earth between 51.6 deg. N. and S. Lat., but peer out into space at targets of opportunity as well. “By this time next year, we'll be in the market and streaming images over the web,” Larson says.
The Canadian venture won't be the first to take advantage of the station's unique position and environment to make money. Nanoracks, which started by renting out a simple set of USB data ports on the station to accommodate paying customers with cubesat-size experiments, has expanded to include a small centrifuge for 1g control in microgravity experiments, and an experiment rack exposed to the space environment on the “porch” of Japan's Kibo laboratory module. Aurora Flight Sciences is planning upgrades to the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage & Reorient Experimental Satellites (Spheres) that fly with puffs of gas inside the station to give customers a place to check their attitude-control, formation-flying and other proximity operations software quickly (AW&ST June 25, 2012, p. 44).