Did you catch the Season 5 finale of "The Big Bang Theory" in which Howard and Bernadette hold their wedding on a rooftop as the International Space Station passes overhead? A lot of other people may do the same if an ambitious young start-up called UrtheCast gets its way. The company's plan is to affix a camera to the underside of the International Space Station, record high-definition video of Earth, and stream it back to the home planet live.
Say what? It's not as crazy as it sounds. UrtheCast has been working on this project for two and a half years and has secured the agreement of Russia's Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, which created much of the Russian component of the station. "All agencies, including the Russian Space Agency, want to do good things in space and justify their taxpayers' expense," explains Scott Larson, president of UrtheCast.
Yes, but how did a tiny start-up get the contract to do this work? The same way most business gets done, by whom you know. "Basically we got it because of introductions we had. We knew them and they knew all of us," Larson says. "We put together a pitch team and said we want to do this with you."
UrtheCast actually plans to put two cameras on the space station, one taking a series of still shots as are typically seen from satellites, the other taking the first-ever video from space. The video camera will point straight down, recording a 50-kilometer wide swath of the earth at all times and will be accurate enough to pick up objects 5 meters (approximately 15 feet) across or larger. It will pass over most points an average of once every eight to nine days, he says, but those days may be spaced irregularly throughout the year. The still camera can be aimed, he adds, so that it can capture images of, say, a natural disaster.
The Business Model
Data from the still camera will be sold to the "earth observation" market which includes media, scientists, and so on. It will also be offered to the United Nations which has requested access for humanitarian and environmental projects. The video will be streamed (free) on the UrtheCast site in as close to real time as possible, and the company will also offer an API so that others can integrate the video into their offerings. "People will organize outdoor events around it," Larson says. "They may do weddings or crop circles."
As a business model, this has real possibilities. No money is changing hands between the Russians and UrtheCast, with the Russians getting the rights to the data within Russia, and UrtheCast getting the rights everywhere else. This will mean the company can offer earth imaging at a fraction of what it usually costs, since most entities have to build their own satellites to get it. Larson envisions that an app someday may let farmers buy imagery of their farms, for instance.
The cameras will become operational sometime this summer. In the meantime, Larson says, "We've raised $11 million so far, and we're always fundraising. Space is expensive."
The biggest challenge he faces? Getting people to believe he's serious. "It's a challenge to get people to wrap their heads around the idea that this is real and it's not some made-up project," he says. "Once they get it, their eyes light up."