UK-built cameras heading for space station

High resolution telescope Rutherford Appleton Laboratory used a lot of off-the-shelf components, but made them space-hardy

Monday sees the launch to the space station of two cameras that are sure to provide some fascinating new views of Planet Earth.

One in particular will catch people’s attention because it will send down high-definition video.

If pre-launch simulations are accurate then the imagery from this particular piece of hardware will – I’m sure – be seen regularly on the evening TV news.

At a resolution of 1m per pixel, you will be able to observe large crowds and moving vehicles.

Think of major world events: the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan or the protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square – these would be given a fresh perspective with video tracking from above.

The cameras have a particular interest for this column because they have been built in the UK at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Etna from the ISS taken with an 800mm lens Increasingly, the ISS is being used as an Earth observation platform

The Oxfordshire lab has a proud history in making and testing space equipment.

It was approached by Canadian start-up UrtheCast (pronounced “Earth-cast”) to provide the cameras for an unused attachment point at the rear of the ISS.

Urthecast was offered the position by the Russian space agency, which wants to see the station exploited to the maximum extent.

The medium-resolution camera (MRC) can resolve details down to about 5m across, covering a swath of some 50km.

It is essentially a rebuild – with modifications – of a space camera that RAL produced for a previous customer.

The high-resolution video camera (HRC), on the other hand, is more bespoke, although it incorporates a lot of off-the-shelf components.

Ian Tosh: "You should be able to see cars moving along the road"

Not that you can just buy stuff and stick it in orbit. Some re-engineering for the extremes of the space environment is almost always necessary.

This can mean exchanging certain materials or individual systems, and RAL has had to do this with the HRC's big telescope, for example.

It was commercially available but its carbon fibre tubing has been upgraded to cope with the stress of being in a vacuum and exposed to large fluctuations in temperature.

“But using off-the-shelf has allowed us to do this project very quickly, in less than two years,” says Ian Tosh, who’s managed the project at RAL.

The cameras are currently at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, waiting for a Progress freighter to take them to the ISS.

Once there, spacewalking astronauts will bolt them to a prepared rig on the Zvezda module. We should see the first stills and videos in the New Year.

Camera diagram The rig that will hold the cameras and point the HRC has already been put in place
Team RAL has now produced some 200 space instruments

Urthecast went public back in the summer, raising some $46m to support its ISS cameras project. It currently has distribution deals worth over $20m.

Its business model has broadly two tracks. The first is fairly conventional: it will be selling commercial imagery of Earth to whoever wants it. This is now a pretty mature, and increasingly competitive, market.

“The other half of the business model is to take the data, process it and stream it over the web as fast as we can – in near real-time,” explains Urthecast president Scott Larson.

“We will allow other developers to makes apps, games, content and educational tools, and change-detection-type tools, all based on our open-source API (application-programming interface),” he told me.

The company is very keen to drive a buzz around its products, and the web portal will play heavily on social media, allowing people to tag imagery and link their own content.

“Everyone in the world is going to go to the website at least once. Why wouldn’t you?” says Larson. “But we want to create an experience that makes people come back time and time again.” The portal will have a search facility that allows you to find the imagery most relevant to you, and if lots of people keep going back “time and time again”, it then becomes an attractive advertising medium.

The ISS is increasingly being used for Earth observation. It’s quite a challenging undertaking, though.

The space station is akin to a wobbling sausage. Every time an astronaut gets on an exercise bike, the whole platform starts to flex. There is also a constant vibration. All this requires the Urthecast cameras to have dampers built into their rig to maintain a steady shot.

Watch out for the first videos when they come down. The HRC will be programmed to pick out and lock on to a spot on the ground as the ISS rolls overhead.

The frame rate will be about three per second, and depending on cloud conditions and viewing angle, the scenes should last about 90 seconds.

Urthecast hopes to be downlinking around 150 videos a day.

Tank Cosmonauts practise the spacewalk that will put the cameras in place
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    #52 with the use of adaptive optics it'd be possible

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    As someone who waits excitedly for each passing of the ISS over my piece of sky, it's nice to know they will be able to see me waving and grinning like an idiot

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Is it even possible to photograph the surface of the earth from space with high enough resolution to recognise a person? I don't remember seeing a high-resolution photo of the ISS taken from Earth, so I imagine the answer is no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Im not a scientist but I know its value All of this is great of course unless your one of the UK flatearthers who thinks this is a waste or that’s its all being done to look into YOUR garden Get over yourself get to a library before they are all shut down by people just like you who don’t see their value otherwise remain being exposed to mumbo jumbo and woo woo Ignorance is a choice these days

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I like the way they use pictures, to give the "pretence" that it is for looking at volcanos abnd things. When chance are, it will be used to snoop on the general public.
    Just like the proposed google web filter porn. A good excuse, but if you read the wording carefully, It says may help. But this will be mis used to block alternative media. Oh if the Nazis had sattelites. Oh hang on they do

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    If Urthecast is anything like me, there's probably a UK built lenscap mistakenly across the front as well...

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.


    Science let you post that comment, for a start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Big Brother is watching you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    12.sir guffington - "Humans were NOT meant for space. Destroy all science and read the bible"

    Don't be ridiculous

    Reading the Bible will not help those in the Philippines but Science has provided the Planes, Vehicles, Shelters, Medicines etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    So now the UK's GCHQ can get real time Spying oops i mean coverage around the World including Syria Iran Cuba ect...
    If something happens in those regions/states that Big Brother does not like then what? WAR?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "14. Mega Awesume Pooster

    who cares really, what has science eva done for us? This money should have been spent on more important things such as I dunno ANYTHING ELSE!"

    One thing science and technology have done for us is introduce the spelling and grammar check.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The UK does have an established Space industry. We don't build launchers but we do build very complex satellites, Earth Observation missions, science missions, telecoms and secure communications. Of course the more investment the better, but we do already have an established and advanced industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Well done British Scientist and Engineers. Very proud our boys are taking something that will become part of the way we see the world to a new level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    This is a great UK contribution to the advancement of space technology. It would be good to see Government place greater emphasis on the development of similar space related technologies going forward. Important not to forget the multitude of technologies originally designed for use in outer space, which are now commonplace in (and of benefit to) today's society and industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Instead of funding Indias space program we should of used the monies to fund our own .

    Well done team.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    #12 The whole religious argument can be thought of another way. If God exists, and if he created the universe, cosmos and us. Why therefore would he have made it possible for us to obtain a greater understanding of said universe, instil a sense of exploration, and grant the ability to learn, understand and develop the technology to explore space.

    Simply put, science is awesome, religion hmm....

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #12 sir guffington
    "Humans were NOT meant for space.
    Destroy all science and read the bible."

    Wouldn't it be better to Read all science and burn the Bible? :D

    Humans do belong in space. I believe in a future where we leave the cave and climb out of the mud. You need to get some of that ancient dust out of your skull and use you brain for something other than bowing to spectors.. IFTT!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    12.sir guffington
    3 Hours ago
    "Humans were NOT meant for space.

    Destroy all science and read the bible."

    Do you realise that the computer on which you are typing and the Internet are products of science, not the bible?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    With the UK has losing so much manufacturing over the past 50 years, I think it's about time we started manufacturing again and exporting things that the world wants. We should use our great wealth of knowledge to push boundaries and do new things - just as our ancestors did to make Britain great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    GAIA will make this look small ;)
    (and yes GAIA was part built by the UK too..,)


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