Fourteen years ago, in November 1998, I stood on a low mound overlooking the bleak Kazakhstan steppe. It was early morning. The ground was covered in a light dusting of snow and a bitter wind tore across the cracked concrete, flattening the surrounding scrappy clumps of grass.
A stream of garbled Russian crackled from a loudspeaker mounted on an army truck. The speech was overwhelmed by static and the angry muttering of a technician attempting a hasty repair. Neither of us looked particularly happy to be there. At least I was being paid – in Yeltsin’s Russia, the chances were he hadn’t received a salary for several weeks. Nevertheless, we were both about to witness a significant moment in space history.
Some 2km (1.4miles) away – its white pencil-shape barely visible against the grey sky – a Proton rocket rose from the ground. A few seconds later, we heard it: a roar, followed by the crackle of the boosters as the launcher disappeared into the cloud. On board, the first stage of the International Space Station (ISS).
Today, six astronauts live and work on the ISS but it’s never really caught the popular imagination. You’ll find most people don’t know they’re there and many others don’t particularly care.
Originally conceived as an American project, Russia was hastily recruited after the collapse of the Soviet Union to help keep its space industry afloat (and its rockets out of hostile hands). The ISS was subsequently used as the justification to extend the life of the Space Shuttle programme and now it’s being sold as an orbital laboratory for, as the press releases would have it, “ten years of science”.
As it happens, I’m a supporter of the ISS. Before we to go back to the Moon and onto Mars, we need to learn how to live in orbit first. Long duration space flight is tough and far better to overcome the challenges close to home rather than in the isolation of deep space. There might even be some significant scientific discoveries or medical breakthroughs. However, science from the station has yet to generate a single significant peer-reviewed paper.
What the ISS desperately needs is a purpose, something that excites the imagination and makes it relevant to everyone on Earth.
On a laboratory bench in the south of England, lies a box of electronics, a mirror and a metre-long cylinder, that could be the answer.
“What you see here are all the components laid out, prior to assembly, for the video camera we’re going to install on the International Space Station,” explains Ian Tosh, as we look through the glass into the clean room at RAL Space, near the city of Oxford. It is one of two cameras being built at the firm, which will be fitted to the outside of the ISS – one fixed, the other swiveling to point in different directions.
“You’re looking at about a metre per pixel,” says Tosh. “Similar to the Google Earth type images of your house. You won’t quite see the tiles but you’ll see all the detail in the garden.” But, unlike those Google pictures, these video images will be live - in real time - or very nearly.
The project was conceived by Canadian company, UrtheCast, and its Director and President, Scott Larson, admits that promoting the ISS was certainly part of the appeal for the space agencies. “One of the things we think that UrtheCast will do is increase the awareness of the Space Station,” he tells me. “And so, in talking to our partners, that was one of the key benefits they wanted to get out of what we’re doing.”
The basic service on offer will be free – with users able to log into the site and see live or archived images and video of anywhere on Earth. With the ISS orbiting the planet around 15 times a day, sooner or later it’ll be above something you want to look at.
“You can enter in your address and find out when it was above there last,” says Larson. “And at the same time, because we know where the space station is, you can enter in your address and find out when it’s going to be above you next. And so you can go outside, you can hold your event, your wedding, your sports day around when it’s going to be imaged from space.”
However, as the cameras won’t be able to see through cloud, arranging your wedding pictures around the orbit of the ISS is something of a gamble. UrtheCast plans to give software developers free access to its code, allowing them to develop new applications such as games or utilities. But how does Larson hope to make any money?
“The goal isn’t to make a tonne of money, the goal is to try to break even,” he says. “We’re talking with seven or eight different companies around the world who buy and sell Earth observation data, and they use it to track crops or monitor cities [for example]…and we’ll just enter that market with our data.” There’s also the potential for broadcasters or websites to buy time on the moveable camera to track live news, sports games or events.
The cameras are due to be completed in the next few months and will be transported to the ISS on an unmanned Russian proton supply ship early next year. Cosmonauts are in training to maneuver the bulky equipment into the station from the capsule and for the space walk necessary to install the cameras on the outside structure.
For the engineers at RAL Space, more used to building satellites, the work has proved a welcome change. “It certainly makes it more interesting for a pub discussion,” says Tosh. “Rather than saying ‘I’m an optical design engineer…okay I’ll go and talk to someone else’…now it’s going on the space station and they’ll be real live video, it makes it much more exciting for everyone.”