British engineers are to build the world’s first camera to provide a live video feed of the Earth from space.
RAL Space, part of the government-funded Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, has already begun developing the high-definition camera ready for installation on the International Space Station (ISS) next summer.
Users will be able to purchase time to use the camera, controlling it remotely by steering it from side to side and zooming in and out to receive images of a similar quality to those of Google Earth.
Canadian company UrtheCast, set up with private investment from venture capital firms, will operate the system and has contracted RAL Space to build and test the camera, along with a second still image device that is already complete.
Speaking to The Engineer from the UK Space Conference at Warwick University, Prof Richard Holdaway, director at RAL Space, said the project showed how small amounts of government funding could lead to commercially successful technology.
‘We are putting together a proposal for the ground system as well, because there’s a lot of stuff that has to go on in terms of processing the data, so almost all of this stuff is likely to be British technology,’ he said.
‘You can imagine a large company that has a major PR event on — it can time the event for when it knows the space station will be coming over and then show real-time coverage. But it’s also an educational tool for kids.’
The main challenges in building the camera would be ensuring high enough resolution, keeping it stable in space and dealing with the huge amounts of data the camera would produce, Holdaway added.
‘One of the reasons why space is so expensive — apart from the severe radiation environment — is the stability with which you’ve got to design optical systems.’
The dinner-plate-sized mirrors inside the cameras have to be stable to within a micron and withstand the high g-forces of launching the device into space.
All the components also have to be designed to expand and contract in relation to the extreme temperature changes of space at exactly the same rate.
The electronic systems will have to be able to send huge amounts of data along a 30ft cable from the camera positioned on the outside of the station to the command centre on board, before processing it and transmitting it back to Earth.