UrtheCast's Eye on the Space Station Can Finally See

UrtheCast cameras installed on the International Space Station on Dec. 27 Courtesy UrtheCast

Scott Larson just survived a particularly stressful month during which the equipment he sent to the International Space Station sat in limbo.

His startup, the Canada-based UrtheCast, created special still and video cameras able to withstand space radiation and extreme temperatures in order to record earth from space in high resolution. The cameras arrived at the space station last fall, and after an eight-hour spacewalk on Dec. 27, they were installed. Only they didn’t appear to work right, Larson says.

UrtheCast High Resolution Camera
Courtesy UrtheCast
So the cameras were taken down. A station-related issue was fixed over several days, and the equipment was finally mounted during a six-hour spacewalk on Tuesday. “There have been a lot of tense moments,” says Larson, whose company raised $68 million for the project. “It’s space, and stuff happens in space, and you never quite know. There are always technical issues in any kind of engineering project. But because there are people out there, they can fix them. That’s been a huge asset.”

From here on, UrtheCast hopes for smooth travels as the space station orbits the earth 16 times every day. The nearly 70-employee company will spend several weeks calibrating the cameras, which will send their first image back to earth in February. “We hope it’s spectacular, we don’t know what it’s going to be,” Larson says.

Once initial tests are wrapped up, UrtheCast expects to start selling space imagery to clients in farming, urban planning, media, and other industries at the end of the second quarter. The company has already signed distribution agreements for $21 million annually, according to Larson, and will also begin streaming images onto the Web in the third quarter—in effect challenging Google Earth with a free video-imaging service.

A 4.5-foot-long camera will record 90-second videos 150 times a day as the station circles the planet, Larson says, while a second camera will continuously snap still photos. Together, the stills will cover a 47.3-kilometer-wide swath of the planet and generate 2.5 terabytes of data a day, the equivalent of about 270 full-length movies. UrtheCast’s engineers will condense and post the visuals to the company’s website within a few hours.

“I think everyone in the world will want to come to the website at least once,” Larson says.

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