Canadian Company Aims to be First to Stream Video of Earth from Space

A Vancouver company wants to give people a taste of the feeling astronauts have when they look down at Earth. 

Urthecast plans to start streaming near-real-time video of the Earth from two cameras mounted on the International Space Station in early 2014.

While parts of the system have already been sent into orbit, the actual cameras aren’t scheduled for launch until November 21. But the company’s president and co-founder, Wade Larson says it will take a couple months for them to be installed and configured once they reach the station.

One of the cameras will be the first to take continuous HD video of the Earth from space. “It’s very unique,” Larson says. “There’s no HD imagery from space, just still images.”

The camera will be able to record a single 3.5-by-5 kilometre area for 90 seconds before the station’s movement forces it to focus on another spot. With a pixel size of around one meter, crowds and small cars will be visible, but it will be hard to see an individual person.

But it’s not just about streaming video of the planet for free – UrtheCast is also hoping to capture a piece of the $2 billion Earth observation business and Larson says they’re already getting a lot of interest.

He says the company is counting on uniqueness of their offering and its quality to drive sales. The space station’s orbit, which circles the equator, will also help set it apart from satellite-basted cameras, most of which are in a polar orbit.

Larson says that UrtheCast hopes streaming video from the cameras for free will help “to create deeper demand,” for their paid services.

There’s more to it though, Larson says he also wants to help people get a small sense of the “overview effect.”

“It’s the profound feeling of awe and majesty that astronauts and cosmonauts have,” he says.

And Larson says that with the cameras able to shoot anywhere between the latitudes of 51 degrees north and south, home to most of the world’s population, they’ll capture some important events.

He expects that “within the first couple months we’ll take a shot of some major water-cooler news event and it will go viral.”

The company is looking for other sources of income, including ads and opening up their API to allow for the development of apps.

“Once you’ve brought people to the site, there’s lots of ways to monetize it,” Larson says.

Because the cameras will be mounted on the ISS, UrtheCast will be able to get them in to space “much, much more cheaply” than if they had to launch a satellite themselves, Larson says.

He says UrtheCast will essentially only have to pay for the cameras—a cost of $15 million. The company has a partnership with the Russian space agency and RSC Energia, a large Russian space contractor, which will help get the cameras into orbit and carry out the installation.

“We cheating the economics of this businesses,” Larson says. “We have far more ability to take this data to the consumer.”

So far, UrtheCast has raised $55 million, including $46 million through a reverse takeover of Toronto’s Longford Energy. That deal also took the company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. And they’re growing fast, Larson says UrtheCast plans to be up to 50 employees within two weeks.

And, Larson says that when the company isn’t using the cameras for paying customers, they’ll look to Twitter and other social networks for advice on where to point it.

“Because of our very low coast structure, we have a lot of flexibility,” Larson says.