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A New Frontier: NASA Streams First Live 4K Video from Space

A New Frontier: NASA Streams First Live 4K Video from Space

In 2006, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) achieved a broadcast industry milestone when the agency successfully produced the first live high-definition (HD) transmission from space. NASA and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have announced that on April 26, 2017, at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time (US), NASA will take another step in advanced video innovation as it pushes the envelope with live 4K.

Together with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and AWS Elemental, NASA is now able to stream live 4K video to enhance its ability to observe, uncover and adapt new knowledge of orbital and deep space. The live feed from 250 miles above Earth will be encoded using AWS Elemental video processing software on board the International Space Station (ISS) and on the ground at Johnson Space Center for delivery by AWS in the cloud to multiscreen devices.

The opportunities that live 4K video unlocks for the agency are significant. Visual impact, for one: There is something special about “live” versus video that’s recorded and played back later. When it’s live, what you’re seeing and hearing is happening in real-time, somewhere above the Earth. It makes the viewing experience more magical.

While NASA has been able to get live TV down from spacecraft dating back to the Apollo missions, the resolution wasn’t always vibrant enough to give viewers a vicarious experience. Even the advent of high definition (HD) video and, later 4K on-demand content, didn’t always give space fans the “just like being there” feeling. Having the ability to send down live UHD/4K, with four times the resolution of full HD, is truly approaching the threshold of “just like being there” for the viewer.

Not only does the superior image quality of live 4K enhance the viewing experience for the public, it also benefits the work of scientists. Having extremely high-resolution video from the ISS can help engineers and payload developers better monitor experiments as well as spacecraft performance, and aid trouble-shooting. 

That’s not to say that encoding video – let alone live 4K video -- in space is easy. That’s where software-based video processing and cloud services work together to make this historic event possible.

The ISS orbits about 250 miles above the Earth and travels at a speed of 17,200 miles per hour (27,600 km per hour). The encoder onboard the nation’s microgravity, orbiting laboratory must be stable and reliable; failure is not an option.

Size is key: every ounce of weight and inch of space is precious, so the encoder needs to be as small as possible. It must also be easy on power consumption, and satisfy NASA specifications for loudness, fan speed, and chemical composition of every component comprising a given product. NASA conducts human factors engineering testing, to make sure it meets the crew’s needs from an interface standpoint, so the user interface has to be simple, yet robust.

The flexibility of software-based video processing enabled AWS Elemental Live to address all of these issues and to help deliver the first live 4K video from space for NASA and bring it to viewers via Amazon CloudFront. 

The history-making event takes place as part of “Reaching for the Stars: Connecting to the Future with NASA and Hollywood,” an NAB Show Super Session in Room N249 of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) on April 26. Produced by NASA, NAB and AWS, the panel event will include a live interaction with astronaut Peggy Whitson, who will share real-world examples of scientific experiments and discuss the power of live 4K video in supporting NASA’s work. The panel and live stream from space will be available to the public for multiscreen viewing in live 4K and down-converted high definition (HD) video at https://live.awsevents.com/nasa4k.