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NASA Takes Streaming Into Space

Next month, when the International Space Station's Space Video Gateway (SVG) becomes fully operational, it may be merely one small step for NASA, but it will be one giant leap for streaming media.

It will be the first time that live, high-definition video has been streamed from the Space Station to the ground. Prior to this, most of the dramatic NASA footage of space walks, weightless stuff floating around the station, and shots of the earth through the station's windows/portholes has been recorded to videotape and seen by the public only after the tapes have been flown back down to earth.

Oh sure, there's been some poor-quality, low-level video streaming done from the Space Station, but only between the astronauts and family members on the ground using NetMeeting on a laptop, says Kevin Hames, Space Video Gateway project manager for NASA. Until now, video streaming from the Space Station has been reserved for videophone-style personal communications—no high-resolution scientific or operational images. That will all change with the advent of the Space Video Gateway. It is NASA's savvy step from low-resolution proprietary video to standards-based high-resolution real-time streaming.

Hames clearly sees streaming as a step forward for NASA as it prepares for more activity onboard the International Space Station, as well as the much-anticipated return to the moon, which is scheduled for 2018.

But Hames also concedes that the Space Video Gateway is more evolutionary than revolutionary. And he emphasizes that it is merely a small add-on component to the Space Station, not a revamp of the station’s overall video system. "We're not taking over the operational video of the Space Station; we are supplementing it," he says.

"The Space Station's video system right now is digital, but it's not any kind of digital that you've ever seen," says Hames. "The video is not encoded the ordinary way. For example, the standard definition video that they send down right now is typically in the 40 to 60 Megabit per second range, so it's not a very efficient encoder by today's commercial standards. The Space Station video system was put together quite a while ago, and it has been a workhorse for us, but it's not very efficient. So what we're trying to do is look at some of the modern commercially available encoding and packetization and streaming technologies and prototype those, use those on the Space Station and find out the pros and cons and how we want to upgrade the Space Station system later on and use it as a test-bed for our lunar vehicles. So this is just the first step."

Good PR for NASA
At the onset, the Space Video Gateway will play a "public affairs" role by supplying an image-hungry public with footage of the astronauts in action. "The ultimate goal for the initial part of this project will be broadcast TV," says Hames. In fact, the SVG is a joint venture with two commercial partners—NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), which is the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, and the Discovery Channel (Discovery Communications, Inc.).

"So the first part of the Space Video Gateway project will be doing live high-definition television broadcasts, interviews with the Space Station crew, and some Space Station activities with NHK and the Discovery Channel. They get 20 minutes each," says Hames. "They will presumably put some programs together to show that footage." After the broadcasting partners get their slice of the pie, NASA will be free to find other uses for its streaming video. "Eventually we will be using both standard and high-definition cameras in more of an experimental mode," says Hames.

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