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 94.


    We are doing the same now with HS2, the gov think that this is a great project, when in reality its already out of date. Why arent we thinking ahead, Elon Musk Hyperloop idea is what i want building. Plus think of the inspiration it will give to everyone in the UK to be the first people of the next generation of human transportation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.


    Now there is no excuse for us to sidestep the most pressing issues ever to confront humanity.

    From our armchairs we will now be able to witness in real time oceans turning acid, the dying of forests, super cyclones, 1 BILLION souls trying to survive, fracking in all it's glory, the persecution of animals, raping of the planet and the popular pastime of blowing each other to bits !

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    GB was in the lead with space rockets once, but the good ol` gummint scrapped them.
    This excellent and advanced rocket was tested in Cumbria, was seen to work...then it was scrapped!
    Nothing changes in UK. We have ministers who hark back to history, not progress to the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Cameras in space eh? Why? Does the UK not have ENOUGH surveillance?
    CCTV in all high streets
    Face recognition cameras.
    Number plate recognition.
    Spy cameras in town halls.
    Everyones data on a infodatasite.
    (We ring up for a quote, for anything and an operator asks for full details so s/he can check YOU against THEIR database)
    Free country? HAH!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.


    "Its more likely a piece of kit designed to spy on us?"

    Only if youre over 5m wide and stand relatively still for long periods of time out in the open with no hat on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.


    Everything filmed though turns into rubbernecking at some point with the existence of Youtube and camera phones nowdays. I don't see how a space camera will change that. What it will change is the ability for people on the ground to organise in the aftermath of a disaster if they can see things in perspective like this. Could also be used to study volcanoes / weather systems etc

  • Comment number 88.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Awesome stuff! I love to hear stories about the space industry and it's important we invest time and money into it. Ultimately it is our future - we can't stay on Planet Earth forever, it is doomed (albeit in 4 billion years) but we'll need to have been long gone by then - colonising half the galaxy, and this is just another step there. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    So - all you people complaining about this. Are you the same people who complaing that there's not enough manufacturing in the UK anymore? There's no pleasing some people...sheesh

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Its more likely a piece of kit designed to spy on us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Scientific developments are common place due to familiarity but this is a potentially good good one, however it has to be born in mind that this is yet again something that can be diverted from its declared intentions and used against the public in general.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The government will only invest more money if they are allowed to build a Mobile Launcher Platform that has a path directly through the countryside and peoples houses. High Space 3.

    No I kid, this is wonderful news. More focus is needed on our space programs. All the mysteries of space are just waiting for us to solve them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I'm a radio HAM. I listen to the ISS when its overhead and tune into the radio link which is crystal clear. I really enjoy listening directly to the Astronauts/Cosmonauts docking/undocking and so forth. I hope that the ISS is passing overhead so that I can listen directly as the Cosmonauts place these UK-built cameras onto the outside of the ISS. Fascinating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Using it to help people in disaster areas is a good thing and I hope in that respect it works well. Using it to rubber neck at a disaster & make money off it would be very poor taste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.


    Cmon UK Government, start a UKSA...


    There IS a UK Space Agency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Britain can do high technology. It could be the basis of a prosperous future for us. The real question is whether we want to. It's far easier for a few people to make big money gambling on the markets with other people's money than it is to build new industries which make everybody better off. We are a nation of gamblers who want easy money, we don't value invention, we just want to get lucky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    @12. sir guffington

    Without science you wouldn't be able to read the bible as it would never have been mass produced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    "Is it even possible to photograph the surface of the earth from space with high enough resolution to recognise a person?..."

    Probably. But you have to know where they are, and have clear day and it's out doors. If someone wants to spy on you easier to buy a 100 quid drone from the toy shop and peer through your bedroom window.

    ... the kid next door is probably already doing it

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Nice to see will still have the skills and abilities to do this type of work.
    I also hope REL's skylon formerly Hotol will at last become successful and built reusable spacecraft in Britain.
    If we can do this why can't we adapt the know how and start producing digital cameras, mobile smart phones, tablets and TV's etc having an electronics industry to compete with the top brand names in the World.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    @71. muadib2

    You are way behind the times mate, I work for a R and D company and I earn well over £40 K and I don't even have a degree


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