NASA Brings the Wonders of the Universe to Online Video

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What’s the most exciting NASA video you’ve ever seen?

“I’m one of the kids of the Apollo era so seeing people walk around on the moon, seeing people drive around on the moon—that was pretty cool for me.”

That’s a hard one to top. For as long as NASA has been exploring outer space, it’s been bringing the excitement back to Earth with stunning images and videos. When Brian Dunbar was a child, he got to see a man take his first “small step” on the moon. Decades later, he’s the internet services manager for NASA’s Office of Communications, at the agency’s Washington headquarters. He still gets excited about the images NASA brings back home.

Thanks to NASA’s internet offerings, anyone can call up its amazing videos whenever they want. The agency has been streaming video online for years on its own site, YouTube, and other platforms. Its amazing video collection is a constantly expanding public trust that everyone can enjoy.

Rocket Man

Video has been a part of NASA’s DNA since the agency was founded.

“When the first astronauts were announced, we carried that press conference live. That would have been 1959,” Dunbar says. “The press audience in the auditorium was overwhelming and everybody brought cameras, of course, and we had our own. TV’s been a huge part of our communications effort from day one.”

NASA didn’t get its own in-house television system until the start of the space shuttle era. That system was paid for by the space flight division and was intended for engineering, so ground controllers could see what was going on. Much of the time the system wasn’t in use, and that’s when the Office of Communication stepped in and began using it to produce programming.

This was before mass adoption of the internet, when viewing options were sparse. Some cable systems picked up NASA’s videos, but more didn’t, leaving many viewers unable to watch.

Around 2004, NASA finally got the infrastructure in place to start streaming online, and NASA-TV took off like a rocket.

“We now stream three channels: our public channel, our education channel, and our media channel,” Dunbar explains. To provide a live view of Earth and space, NASA also uses Ustream to broadcast live high-definition video from the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA

In addition to its own three channels, NASA TV also uses Ustream to deliver high-definition video sent from the International Space Station. 

While it streams around the clock, NASA doesn’t create a lot of original programming. Most of its content is either live events or replays of live events. Tune in to see control room shots showing teams of rocket scientists at work, for example. NASA is able to put video cameras where those in the news media can’t.

Major events go on NASA’s public channel. That was the first one to go live. The first significant event it carried was the landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers in January 2004.

“We had no idea what the audience was,” Dunbar says. “We knew there would be an audience. By that time streaming was fairly common, if problematic. We had a lot of folks clamoring for being able to watch television, being able to watch our live coverage. I think we peaked at about 50,000 webcast streams simultaneously for the Rover landings.”

At the time, NASA was streaming video with Real Media, sending 320x240 pixel streams. Soon after, it branched out to deliver the three chief formats of the day: Windows Media, Apple QuickTime, and Real.

By the time Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, NASA’s online viewership had grown. NASA served 1.2 million simultaneous video streams, which is still the agency’s peak event. Curiosity beat the final space shuttle launch by about 600,000 streams.

Mars Curiosity Rover

The webcast of the landing of the Curiosity rover—shown here after the landing—on Mars drew 1.2 million viewers. 

Besides the public channel, NASA also offers an education channel and a media channel. The education channel is run by the agency’s Office of Education. Rather than delivering shows on a set schedule, it creates educational resources that support NASA’s current missions. Apart from videos, the office creates and distributes classroom materials.

Finally, video on the media channel is primarily intended for reporters. It includes press conferences and live coverage of space walks. It duplicates much of the public channel content, and, of course, anyone is free to watch it.

NASA doesn’t run an on-demand video library, but uploads video to YouTube. All the YouTube content includes synchronized captions by government mandate.

NASA puts its video cameras wherever they need to be, Burnet says. That includes having fixed cameras in mission control in Houston and the control rooms in launch facilities in Florida and Virginia. When the New Horizons space probe passed by Pluto in July, NASA showed video from the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The ISS has cameras installed, and the agency has even worked with its commercial partners to put cameras on some of their vehicles.

To stream from the ISS, NASA downlinks video via satellite, sending it through the TDRS (tracking and data relay satellite) system. The video reaches ground and travels to a NASA center for encoding. The agency is currently moving its encoders to a commercial facility in Atlanta. The whole workflow is similar to that for any broadcast, with the difference that the stream originates in space. Streamed video can have a 20- to 30-second lag time behind broadcast feeds.

Ground Control to Major Snafu

NASA is currently in the process of moving its video distribution to Akamai, or rather back to Akamai. It used another CDN for 18 months, but that didn’t go well.

"Unfortunately, it was a performance issue," Dunbar says. "We had a major event last December. We flew the first version of our new spacecraft, and after having a lot of rock-solid performance on Akamai, as part of a cost-saving measure our CIO switched us to Limelight and Limelight just did not perform. We saw a lot of very poor performance, a lot of disrupted TV signals and delays and frozen screens at much lower levels than we should have. It should have been able to handle a much larger load without issue. With Akamai, for the Curiosity landing we got 1.2 million webcast streams and we did not have a single issue with that. These are our major events and we can't afford not to serve them well."

The problem occurred during the test launch for Orion, the spacecraft that's replacing the Space Shuttle. Interest in the December 2014 launch was huge. NASA got major traffic on its site, but wasn't able to stream the event to all viewers. Technical and weather problems caused NASA to scrub the first attempted launch. During that attempt, NASA's internet team saw streaming issues begin to occur, and talked to Limelight about them. Limelight assured NASA the problem was corrected. The next day the capsule successfully launched, but the web streams never took off as the same streaming problems reoccurred. The site began experiencing performance issues at around 35,000 or 40,000 streams. The image would buffer or freeze and the audio would cut out.

The Orion launch and other live events are the site’s bread and butter, Dunbar says. That’s why people visit. NASA couldn’t allow another botched major event, so it’s making the move back to Akamai.

[Limelight responds: "Unfortunately, there was a brief disruption at the worst possible time. This was an exception to the excellent service our customers are accustomed to receiving from Limelight. We conducted a full investigation and fixed the root cause of the issue so it never reoccurs. We regret this isolated service degradation impacted our customer,” says Dan Carney, vice president of operations for Limelight Networks.]

Across the Universe

Making the images from its explorations available to the public is part of NASA’s mission, and it’s something Dunbar takes seriously. He loves the reactions he sees, especially from Americans. There’s a real feeling of pride, he says, in being part of the NASA legacy. He reads comments on the site to the effect of “This is so exciting. This is so cool,” and it takes him back to being a kid watching that first moonwalk.

Thanks to social media, everyone can see those reactions. This interview took place shortly before New Horizons reached Pluto. Dunbar knew that it would offer us images we’d never seen before. As we know now, New Horizons went beyond our expectations as it showed the first detailed images of the dwarf planet. We saw mountains of ice as high as the Rockies, and a large heart-shaped region that made the internet fall in love. “This exceeds what we came for,” NASA deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin said during a press conference.

The Pluto images are an excellent reminder of how NASA can stimulate the world’s imagination and curiosity. Videos of spacecraft launches or of the Earth from space make the unimaginable real.

“With video, people can feel [closer], like they are there,” Dunbar says. “I’ve been running the agency’s website for about 20 years and what we keep hearing from the public is the excitement they feel with what we do, and they want to be as close to being part of it as they can. It goes back to having cameras on the moon, making sure that we could show people live television from the moon when people were walking on it.”

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “NASA Streams the Universe.”

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