Most of you are familiar with the concept of HDTV - high definition television, which generally requires a special large-screen TV and a cable or satellite feed that is specifically formatted for high-definition viewing. Both require additional funds and subscriptions, and of course your TV has to be compatible, or else you’re still going to watch ordinary mainstream TV.
If TV watching and shelling out extra hard-earned bucks for a better picture isn’t your thing (or you can simply not afford it, because let’s face it, there are far more pressing needs in your life than being able to count the eyelashes on a newscaster) you can still have the HD experience in your life - with HDEV.
HDEV stands for High Definition Earth Viewing, and it comes to a computer near you for free, directly from outer space, and the International Space Station, to be exact.
HDEV does not feature cops and robbers shows, or wrestling matches, or cooking competitions. There’s only one channel, one subject, and one superstar: Planet Earth!
There are several fixed-view high-definition cameras attached to the outside of the International Space Station, and they stare down at our fair planet around the clock, their unblinking lens-eyes trained on our beautiful home.
It’s quite an ingenious system: all cameras operate on a fixed on/off cycle: the leading camera switches on first, then the next one in line takes over and so forth, until the tail-end camera finishes with its allotted work time and hands filming duties back over to the front-end camera. This fully automated switching cycle allows the viewer to watch one particular area on Earth for an entire pass of the ISS, thus allowing for far longer observation times and of course different viewing angles.
Of course it’s not just idle pretty pictures that are the true purpose of those cameras. As you are well aware, outer space is a very inhospitable place for almost all life, and it’s no Sunday afternoon picnic in the park for machines, either. While most spacecraft cameras work very well during the lifetimes of their host spacecraft, those periods of times may be months or even years. But what about beyond that? What about decades? What about the lowly surveillance and observation duties that are by and large not very fascinating but become major disasters if the camera fails for even a second?
That’s what the HDEV system is really trying to do: it is an experiment in providing the highest-quality viewing possible over a very long period of time without any maintenance whatsoever, working in the harshest environment imaginable, and enduring countless switching cycles. It is basically a camera marathon run.
Lucky for us, those cameras don’t just stream their constant feeds into some dark secret room somewhere — their stunning views are available to you right now, at this very moment, for as long as you want. Curiously enough the astronauts on the ISS themselves have no control or even a direct line to those cameras. If they want to watch, they have to load the HDEV feed and watch over their internet connection. The HDEV cameras don’t record anything - it is a simple feed that just shows you what it sees.
So when the neighbors brag about their new HDTV system you can nonchalantly wave them off: “Yes, yes, that sounds lovely, my dear. But I have HDEV. And it’s free. Come over some time, bring a pizza, and we’ll watch together!”
Then go to http://www.ustream.tv/channel/iss-hdev-payload. Just be sure the ISS is not on the night side of the planet, because all you will see is a screen of soothing neutral gray.
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.