1st Vine from Space: The science and technology behind Reid Wiseman's amazing video
Monday, June 9, 2014, 1:25 - On Friday, American astronaut Reid Wiseman treated us all to something pretty amazing: a six-second Vine video from space, showing off the incredible view as the International Space Station made a full orbit around the Earth. While seeing Vines show up on social media isn't exactly rocket science, quite a bit has gone into Wiseman's video, and into giving him the ability to share it with us here on the ground.
The first thing to note is that, while a Vine is a little over six seconds long, the orbit of the International Space Station is significantly longer - 92 minutes and 52 seconds, to be exact. So, Wiseman's Vine captures just one of the 15 or 16 orbits the station performs every day, and it is something remarkable right from the start, since it fairly seamlessly compresses an hour and a half of time down into just that short span. Getting 140 frames into a Vine (thus getting close to 24 frames per second video quality) certainly is possible, and it would mean Wiseman took a frame shot every 40 seconds or so to capture the full orbit (a similar, but slower video can be seen here).
Second, while the ISS does cross the terminator - the line between day and night - as the Earth under the station goes dark just before the Sun passes behind the solar panels, the Sun doesn't actually set for the entire video. This is because the ISS is currently on what's known as a High Solar Beta Angle orbit. This puts them orbiting almost exactly over the line between day and night, giving the solar panels maximum exposure to sunlight (this orientation is nicknamed 'barbecue'), as shown in the image below (see the full explanation by clicking here).
Even though there has been a continuous human presence in space on the ISS for nearly 14 years, the crew has only enjoyed the same kind of WiFi internet access we have here on the ground since January 2010 (although it's significantly slower). Before then, if they wanted to send a Tweet out to us, they needed to email their message to NASA while the station was exchanging data, and a representative would post it for them. After January 2010, they've been able do so whenever they want, as long as the station communicating with relay stations on the ground. Still, despite the ideas that science fiction has given us over the years about the kind of advanced technology a space station would have access to, the astronauts have been doing the same thing we do when we connect to our work computer from home. It's slow. It's undoubtedly clunky compared to a direct connection. It's not exactly Star Trek.
That changed last Thursday, though, as NASA tested out their new Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) system for laser communication between the station and Earth. According to the NASA team that developed and tested the system, if you can remember what it was like when you unplugged your old 1440 modem and plugged in a new DSL connection, you'll know what the astronauts are feeling now. The video below explains OPALS and the "Hello, World!" video that they sent to test the system.
OPALS will make communications much faster, for mission updates, science experiments, and of course, for the crew to continue to wow us with their spectacular views from orbit, and it may even include more videos, like those recorded by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield last year, and Wiseman's latest Vine. It still won't be giving the crew access to the kind of bandwidth we we're capable of getting here on Earth, but they're certainly closing the gap.