At 9:10 a.m. on Jan. 27, two Russian cosmonauts drifted out of the International Space Station orbiting Earth for a meticulously orchestrated space walk to install two high-tech cameras owned by a bold Canadian startup.
The cameras cost $17-million and are capable of beaming down images and high-definition video from the Russian part of the ISS to UrtheCast, a small Vancouver company that struck a deal with the Russian space agency to have its devices blasted into space on a Soyuz rocket and installed in exchange for imagery captured over Russia.
On an earlier space walk in December, wiring problems inside the space station meant no one could connect to the cameras – “Stuff like this happens in space,” UrtheCast CEO Scott Larson said – so the devices were taken back inside the airlock. This new trip should fix that small snag and allow UrtheCast (pronounced Earth cast) to sell its images and video on the market, a small part in a bold new space race as private companies scramble to cash in on half a century’s worth of publicly funded space equipment and infrastructure.
Governments weary of expensive, manned space travel have begun to sell everything from valuable R&D to entire rockets, as well as leasing out launchpads. The vast potential for new space businesses – where the sky is literally not the limit – has lured a gaggle of visionary entrepreneurs. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has already built numerous rockets, become a valued NASA partner that has delivered payloads up to the ISS and helped launch numerous commercial satellites.
Sir Richard Branson plans to launch himself and his two children into space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, making them some of the first space tourists. Some companies are even planning to mine the moon and asteroids for minerals.
And although some areas of the sector are highly speculative, it seems the broader industry is on the cusp of a potentially massive expansion. Anthony Lacavera, the entrepreneur who founded Wind Mobile and served as UrtheCast’s chairman as the firm went public, describes the possibility of 90-minute flights between New York and Hong Kong on sub-orbital spacecraft that take off horizontally (rather than vertically, on a non-reusable rocket), as well as plans for massive solar-panel fields floating in space that can capture and beam energy back to Earth.
“There’s this wave coming of private space enterprise,” Mr. Lacavera says, adding that UrtheCast may help cement Canada’s role in the so-called “small space” industry. “You can envision it. It’s going to touch every industry.”
The U.S. firm Skybox Imaging already shows high-quality video taken from a satellite of a mining operation in Australia, traffic in Las Vegas, and detailed videos from Syria, Japan and Thailand that could be studied by everyone from humanitarian agencies to corporations and governments. Digital Globe, an industry giant, expects to haul in at least $635-million in revenue this year by selling satellite imagery, mainly to U.S. government agencies.
UrtheCast – roughly 52 years after the ground-breaking Alouette satellite launched in 1962, and more than 30 years since the installation of the iconic Canadarm – plans to sell images and videos to governments, corporations and non-profit agencies. But because of UrtheCast’s Russian partnership and consequent low-cost structure, the firm also plans to broadcast online a near-live stream of video and images from space that anyone can access. Mr. Larson is taking an open-source approach, allowing application developers the ability to tap into the data stream – making the Vancouver company a sort of space start-up for the social media age.
“If you’ve spent $400-million on a satellite, you can’t give the imagery away,” Mr. Larson says. “We’re new. We’re nimble. There’s other things we can do.… We can get much more creative.”
UrtheCast, founded after Mr. Larson’s brother Wade left Canadarm-maker MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, has other advantages. Its cameras were affixed not to a satellite, which has a polar orbit, but to the ISS, which drifts at an inclined orbit that goes frequently over the equator around the world’s most populated areas, 16 times each day. Satellite operators are also cautious about power conservation: Satellite-borne solar panels tilt toward the sun to top up batteries, but cameras are turned on only when necessary. Because UrtheCast’s cameras constitute only a fraction of the overall power consumption on the huge space station, they can be left on permanently.
Eyal Ofir, an analyst with Clarus Securities, estimates the Earth observation industry is worth about $1.5-billion a year, and that Digital Globe has about 60 per cent of the market. “They’re changing the landscape, for sure,” Mr. Ofir says, referring to both UrtheCast and Skybox Imaging.
Mr. Larson says UrtheCast will capture images that have never been seen before, which could prove problematic. Google’s Street View got around privacy concerns by blurring faces, but it’s not clear what will happen with high-definition video imagery from space distributed free online. “It levels the playing field, because everyone has access to the same information,” says Deepa Kundur, a University of Toronto professor who studies cybersecurity. “But on the other hand, it creates privacy issues in certain contexts that never existed before.”
John Sheldon, a senior fellow with the University of Toronto’s Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, says privacy and security concerns are limited by the resolution of UrtheCast’s cameras. He says other world powers – and some companies – already have satellites with more powerful video cameras than UrtheCast. Any new security concerns about near-live video streaming, such as capturing troops in an operation, could be handled easily, he says.
“Drones offer perhaps a more immediate threat to your personal privacy,” Mr. Sheldon says. “What we’re seeing with Urthecast and Skybox is what I call the democratization of space. Five, ten years ago these applications were highly classified.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that the International Space Station drifts with an equatorial obit. In fact, the ISS travels at an inclined orbit that goes frequently over the equator, but is not a true equatorial orbit.