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$K UHD video feed from space
As NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson looks on, crewmate Jack Fischer jokes that “you can probably see into my pores” during the first’ever live 4K UHD video feed from the International Space Station. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA and AWS Elemental showed off something completely different from the International Space Station today: the first live video in ultra-high-definition 4K detail beamed down from space.

The technical achievement was as important as what the audience at the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Las Vegas expo saw on the big screen – and what internet users around the world could see on 4K UHD devices.

“My thought was, ‘Wow, am I glad all this was working,'” Rodney Grubbs, program manager for NASA Imagery Experts, said afterward during an NAB panel. NASA has put plenty of 4K UHD videos online, but this was the first time it did live video streaming in 4K UHD.

The hookup took advantage of a UHD-ready RED Epic Dragon digital camera as well as a space-certified, UHD-capable video encoder from AWS Elemental, the Portland-based video processing venture that Amazon acquired in 2015 for almost $300 million.

AWS Elemental CEO Sam Blackman presided over the proceedings in Las Vegas, but the stars of the show were NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the space station’s commander, and NASA crewmate Jack Fischer.

Both astronauts said they expected UHD video, which offers frame resolutions of 4096 by 2160 pixels, to add to the inspirational value of being in space.

“4K and ultra-high-def actually make you feel like you’re there,” Fischer said over the video link. “I mean, if you look really close, you can probably see into my pores right now. Granted, nobody wants to see there, but everybody wants to see the Earth from this vantage point. And by looking down at the Earth with this amazing new technology, we’re able to inspire an entire new generation of explorers.”

Whitson, 57, said that she was inspired to become an astronaut by watching the grainy black-and-white video sent back from Apollo missions. Ultra-high-definition views from space may well do something similar for Mars explorers a decade or more from now.

She pointed out that UHD video also has present-day benefits for documenting the experiments conducted inside the space station. “Being able to capture a lot of data is very important for us scientifically,” Whitson said.

Fischer agreed. “With these new cameras and new technologies, we’re able to get higher resolution, higher frame rates to capture different science for some of our experiments – ultra-slow motion for some of the effects that are very short-lived, yet very important,” he said.

The astronauts showed off some simple experiments during the chat, including a ping pong game that they played with a floating ball of water. As they batted the ball around, it broke up into glistening pearls of water that ricocheted out of the video frame (or into Fischer’s mouth).

Ping pong in zero-G
NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer bat around balls of water in zero-G. (NASA via YouTube)

The crowd oohed and ahhed as the astronauts added a fizzy Alka-Seltzer tablet and food colorings to another glob of water and a swirling thin film of water in zero-G.

It took a few seconds going each way for the UHD video to run its course through all the gizmos required to encode, transmit and process the signal. Between time-delayed questions, the astronauts let their microphone slowly twirl in midair.

“We can watch that microphone spin for a long time,” AWS Elemental’s Blackman joked.

Not all the questions were about high-definition video: Early on, Blackman asked Fischer about his favorite space movies. Fischer’s answer? “The Right Stuff” as a serious choice, and “Spaceballs” for less serious fare. “Because we’re basically flying at ‘Ludicrous Speed’ right now,” he added. (For the record, the space station circles earth at roughly 17,000 mph, not two steps up from light speed.)

The transmission began as the space station was above Baja California, and by the time it ended, the astronauts were zooming over Africa. After the signal was cut off, Khawaja Shams, AWS Elemental’s vice president of engineering, reflected on the bottom line for 4K UHD video.

“I found my own passion for space being invigorated,” Shams said. “And I realized that the video is just the vehicle. It’s the content that I’m most excited about.”

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