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Astronaut Andrew Morgan does a zero-gravity flip on the International Space Station with a push from his two NASA crewmates, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. (NASA via YouTube)

Amazon Web Services and NASA have demonstrated how cloud-based video processing can distribute live streams from space, with a shout-out from the International Space Station.

The demonstration took center stage today in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, or SMPTE.

Barbara Lange, SMPTE’s executive director, told GeekWire that the members of her organization have a professional and personal interest in telling the story of space travel through moving images.

“We want to make sure that that story is a beautifully rendered story, and that there are no hiccups, and no pixelations, and no issues,” she said.

That’ll be a challenging task, especially when video is transmitted from far-out spaceships, or from the surface of the moon or Mars. In fact, ratty video from space is a classic cliche in science-fiction movies.

AWS and NASA took an initial step two years ago when they demonstrated for the first time how 4K Ultra HD video could be transmitted live from the space station, using a UHD-capable video encoder from AWS Elemental.

Since then, the equipment used to get that Ultra HD video has fallen victim to space radiation, said Josh Winstead, a technical marketing engineer at AWS Elemental. But today’s demonstration delivered HD broadcast-quality video to the SMPTE gathering and the wide world of the Web.

For today’s show, most of the magic happened down on Earth. The video stream was delivered to Johnson Space Center in Houston in the usual way, via NASA’s network of orbiting satellites and ground stations. But from there, the stream was transferred into Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing network using AWS Elemental MediaConnect, transcoded using MediaLive, packaged with MediaPackage, and delivered with Amazon CloudFront.

“We’re riding on the public internet for the last mile,” Winstead said.

Ninety percent of the video processing and transmission tasks that are usually done with studio equipment and satellites were done in the cloud instead.

During today’s video linkup with the SMPTE audience, NASA’s astronauts on the space station discussed the future of off-world imagery.

“It’s our duty to continue to produce imagery of all types — video imagery and still imagery — and we’ll do it with integrity,” said Andrew Morgan, who’s been in orbit since July. “And the more we put out there, the more real it becomes to everyone.”

Astronaut Christina Koch, who participated in the first all-female spacewalk with Jessica Meir last week, echoed Lange’s comments about the importance of visual storytelling in space.

“Adding the personal stories behind the images can do so much to really bring it home,” she said. “The emotion that we felt at the time shows that there was more to it than just the image captured.”

Koch and her crewmates get a regular supply of movies and other streaming content from Earth. But Meir, who started her stint on the station just last month, said their favorite thing to watch is their home planet, framed in the windows of the station’s Cupola observation deck. “That view never gets old,” Meir said.

Looking ahead, Morgan said that augmented-reality tools like Microsoft’s HoloLens headset are already playing a role in space station operations, and that virtual reality will be a must-have technology when astronauts travel through deep space on their way to Mars.

“We’ll need that immersive technology from virtual reality to reproduce the sensation of being at home, or being in a different environment when we no longer can just look out the window and see the Earth below us,” he said.

Video processing flow
A schematic shows how video signals were received from the International Space Station and processed using cloud computing. Click on the image for a bigger version. (AWS Diagram)

Cloud-based video processing isn’t just for spacefliers. Khawaja Shams, vice president of engineering at AWS Elemental, said the technology has plenty of earthly applications as well. It’s likely to be significantly less expensive and more flexible than the traditional methods, he told GeekWire.

“You don’t have to have a reservation on a satellite or a long-life contract,” Shams said. “It gives customers a lot of flexibility to provision an IP-based endpoint and use the pipe they already have as connectivity to stream the video content.”

Before coming to AWS Elemental, Shams spent more than seven years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on Deep Space Network links to Mars spacecraft including the Phoenix Mars Lander and the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. He said he draws upon that experience for the AWS-NASA collaboration.

“There’s a lot of technical interchange and learning on both sides, on just how to operate mission-critical infrastructure,” Shams said. “I’ve been one of the fortunate people to see it from both ends, on the commercial side and on the space side.”

And who knows? Maybe he and AWS Elemental will be on the case when the first men and women on Mars start streaming their small steps and giant leaps.

For more about the engineering behind today’s cloud-based video processing demonstration, check out Josh Winstead’s posting on the AWS Media Blog.

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