New Eyes on the ISS

The space station’s cameras get an upgrade.


How quickly we get spoiled. For years I’ve happily watched NASA spacewalks, marveling at the fact that we get to see live, astronaut’s-eye views of the action through “helmetcams” worn by spacewalkers since the STS-97 shuttle mission in 2000.

Now I see what we’ve been missing.

Last week NASA posted raw video taken by a GoPro camera fixed to Terry Virts’ suit when he and Butch Wilmore ventured outside the space station last February. The new footage (which is silent except for the whirring fan in Virts’ spacesuit and the rattling of his tether) is way sharper and brighter than anything we’ve seen on previous spacewalks. Judge for yourself:

This particular GoPro was borrowed from the Russians, who sent it up to the station in 2013 so cosmonauts could film high-definition scenes of the Olympic Torch in space.  Unlike a lot of off-the-shelf hardware, the camera didn’t have to be modified for use in space, according to Carlos Fontanot, NASA’s imagery manager for the station. It did, however, have to be sealed in an insulated enclosure, which includes a big on/off button on the outside, so gloved astronauts don’t have to fiddle with tiny controls.

NASA uses a different brand of small HD camera—the Drift Ghost-S. Three of these are already on board the station, and are used as supplements to the Canon XF305 cameras that normally are fixed to wall mounts in the non-Russian modules. The Ghost camera is handy for everything from peering into tight spaces behind the station’s wall racks to filming inside the airlock to documenting the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft docking to the station (footage of last week’s docking, shot from the space station’s multi-windowed Cupola, will go up on NASA’s website soon, says Fontanot). Like the GoPro, the Ghost-S needs an enclosure before it can be sent out on spacewalks, but NASA hasn’t finished certifying its own enclosure yet, says Fontanot. So Virts used the Russian GoPro to film HD scenes for this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first spacewalk.

High-def views of the Earth already are being streamed from the station, while another high-end camera, the RED Dragon 6K (the same model used by director David Fincher to shoot last year’s film Gone Girl), arrived on the station last fall. NASA plans to use that camera to shoot very high-quality video of departing cargo vehicles burning up in the atmosphere after they leave the station.

The quality of space station video may be going up, but one thing isn’t likely to change. The live streaming of astronauts working inside the U.S. laboratory isn’t likely to be expanded to other areas of the station. Even now, turning that camera on or off is up to the discretion of the crew. High def or not, how would you like a webcam in your workplace, broadcasting your every move to the world, all day, every day?

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