The view from above

by Sheldon Gordon

Astronauts often talk about the life-changing moment when they got their first good look at the Earth from outer space. The view never fails to make a deep emotional impact. It leaves some in tears. Wade Larson, MBA’00, wants to “democratize that view.”

Larson is the president and co-founder of UrtheCast Corp., a Vancouver-based space technology company. Speaking to a TEDx audience last spring, Larson proclaimed that UrtheCast will be offering “a taste of [the astronaut] experience to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.” The company is on the verge of making good on that promise.

In late January, two Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station ventured outside into the dark void to install a pair of unique UrtheCast cameras on the station. Larson watched the event unfold live at the Russian Federal Space Agency's mission control centre in Korolev. The cameras, together valued at roughly $17 million, will continuously deliver video and still images of the Earth as the ISS orbits the planet.

One camera will supply “Google Earth-quality” photos. Iris, the video cam, will provide one of the few near-live high-definition colour video feeds of Earth imagery from space. (State-owned spy satellites in orbit may also provide such feeds, but they tend to be classified.)

“High definition improves the ability to distinguish objects on the ground,” says Larson. Iris can spot anything that is one metre or larger – groups of people, for instance, or boats or planes. Iris can focus on a single spot and film for up to 90 seconds. Larson expects the camera to produce about 150 HD videos every day.

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy complete the installation of a pair of high-fidelity UrtheCast cameras during a spacewalk on January 27. (Photo: NASA) UrtheCast’s diverse partners point to different applications for the technology. The Discovery Science Channel signed an agreement with UrtheCast that will result in some of the space cameras' footage being featured on their broadcasts. Larson says UrtheCast is attracting similar customers elsewhere, “distributors around the world who want the rights to redistribute our data.”

The UN is also partnering with UrtheCast, albeit with more serious goals in mind. The videos and images produced by UrtheCast’s space cameras could prove to be invaluable in monitoring agricultural land use, forestry practices and animal migrations. It could also play a vital role in providing crucial data for disaster relief efforts.

Larson began his space industry career in 1995 as the manager of international relations for the Canadian Space Agency. He sheepishly admits that he wasn’t exactly a sci-fi fan lucking into a dream job.

“I didn’t particularly have an overwhelming love for space then. To be perfectly honest, as the CSA was only a few years old at the time [it was created in 1989], I didn’t even know Canada had a space agency – which I say to my shame.”

While at the agency, Larson did an MBA part-time at McGill, specializing in strategic management. “McGill's classroom discussions and the assignments were extremely important in giving me a broad business worldview, which I've used a lot in my career.”

In 2002, he became vice-president of business development at Canada's largest space company, MDA Corporation (then known as MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates) in Vancouver. He was in charge of sales for the company's satellite division.

When Larson had a meeting in Moscow in 2012 with the organization that had put Yuri Gagarin into space, the Russians proposed a joint venture with MDA. “Their idea was that MDA would provide a radar payload, the Russians would put it on the ISS, and the two companies would operate that as a shared business.”

The proposal, however, “was just too entrepreneurial, and a little too risky, to suit MDA,” says Larson. He had recently been struck by the popularity of a website that was streaming live footage from an eagle's nest on Hornby Island in B.C. Larson had a brainstorm and decided to make his own counter-proposal to the Russians, one based on providing images of the Earth from space.

So, with MDA's “full blessing,” Larson launched his own start-up. Instead of calling the venture EarthCast, a trademark that was already taken, Larson named it UrtheCast, a riff on the words “You Are the Cast.”

The space cameras recently passed their first series of functional tests and the plan is to have both fully operational by late summer. From flash floods to flash mobs, Earth will then be ready for its close-up.