On August 21, a total solar eclipse will take place in the U.S. for the first time since 1979.
“It began with no ado,” wrote Annie Dillard of the event 38 years ago. “It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth.”
Viewers of this year’s eclipse can expect the same wonder that Dillard describes in her now-famous essay, but those who tune into NASA’s 2017 live broadcast will hear commentary, too.
The eclipse has captured the world’s attention, but it’s not the only event NASA will live stream this year. Online video plays an important, dual role for the space organization. Its regular live broadcasts, using CDNs and services like IBM’s video streaming, are a way to communicate with the public whose tax dollars support its missions, while video is also an indispensable internal tool for research and development.
Show and tell (and multiple live streams)
One of NASA’s most famous broadcasts, of course, was Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969. Then, as now, video has been an important channel for getting the word out about the goings-on at NASA.
“As a government agency, it’s our job to provide these images for the public,” said Bryan Walls, an engineer at NASA.
Viewers have more choices for watching video than they did in 1969, and NASA makes it a priority to keep pace. The agency is active on multiple platforms, including NASA TV, which is broadcast online and on television.
Viewers eager to watch the eclipse, but unable to travel to an ideal location, can find the perfect vantage point from their couch. NASA will live stream the eclipse on several platforms: IBM Watson Media (using the Ustream Watch portal), NASA’s Live Stream Page, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, Twitch TV, and NASA’s apps. Thanks to NASA, viewers can tune in from the comfort of their homes, complete with live commentary from NASA scientists about the event. While coverage of the eclipse is set to begin at 1p.m. EDT, the event itself will kick-off with an introduction: the Eclipse Preview Show, will be hosted from Charleston, South Carolina, at 12 p.m. EDT.
In addition to this broadcast, NASA will host a program called NASA EDGE for the four hours of the eclipse. The show will stream live from Carbondale, viewable on Ustream, and feature unique coverage including conversations with scientists and members of the public as they watch the eclipse together.
Video for research and development
While live streaming is an important part of NASA’s efforts to stay connected to the public, video plays an even greater importance internally for research and development. In fact, public live streams make up just a fraction of the live video being filmed on a daily basis at NASA.
Cameras are an essential tool at Mission Control, for example, says Mark Sowa, supervisor of NASA’s Imagery Acquisition Group. During a launch, Mission Control is monitoring every piece of data that comes in to make decisions as the launch progresses. While success is typical, if something were to go wrong, video is a critical tool for figuring out what happened. NASA has entire class of cameras designed specifically for engineering, some of which are high-speed film cameras.
“Even the cameras that are there for news coverage, and in some cases even if somebody was filming on their iPhone,” says Sowa, might be sourced as valuable video footage for analysis after the event.
In addition to using video for launches, NASA keeps cameras fixed on most of its activities—which it calls Situational Awareness Videos. For example, there are six streams of video constantly coming down from the International Space Station. Sometimes the feeds will be used for visual support if, for example, an astronaut needs to make a repair. At other points, the feed is on just to let NASA employees on the ground keep an eye on what’s going on. While these six cameras are standard definition, NASA also broadcasts some high-definition footage to its channels from ISS for public viewing.
Projects on the ground, too, are often monitored with video. Many of NASA’s project managers have video feeds on their desks monitoring long-term projects so that they can check in on progress while getting other things accomplished. In the case of some projects, it’s impossible for people to be in the test area, so cameras can gather important information while keeping everyone safe.
Thus far, NASA has been diligent about staying on top of video technology trends. This is a major advantage for NASA’s development teams, who will help make missions more successful. All told, as video capturing and distribution technology continue to improve, NASA’s capabilities in all areas will as well.
For the public, it’s also a major benefit, giving them access to high quality video in more places, in part thanks to adaptive streaming as outlined in this How Adaptive Streaming Solves Viewer Bandwidth Issues white paper. And this year’s eclipse live stream is no exception: When comparing the 2017 eclipse to the last occurrence, NASA representatives say viewers can expect a much higher-quality capture. Viewers interested in watching can tune in at 12 EDT on Monday, August 21st to see the pre-show, the live broadcast and NASA EDGE on the Watch portal.