NASA TV Takes Public Along for an UHD Ride

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this broad, short-lens photograph of Earth’s night lights while looking out over the remote reaches of the central equatorial Pacific Ocean.

It’s been six months since NASA gave us a sense of what it’s like to fly in space.

The dark depths of space, with its otherworldly collection of stars, black holes and planets, has become an almost touchable reality since the space agency debuted NASA TV UHD, a live and linear 2160p video channel being aired via satellite and, more humbly, via a simple online browser.

Now, half a year later, the agency is attempting to reach a bevy of new pint-sized fans by curating educational programming in UHD on NTV-1, the agency’s public education channel. Students young and old are able to view satellite-delivered and online-streamed programming that pares down the rocket-science verbiage of NASA astrophysicists, chemists and computer scientists into relatable 4K images and videos that simplify the ethereal missions of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration.

Since its debut in November, the NASA TV channel has been delivering UHD programming via an end-to-end UHD video delivery system from Harmonic with the goal of “showcasing the beauty of the images” within NASA’s vast repository, said Rodney Grubbs, program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Since its inception, the channel has aired historical file footage that has been rescanned and reformatted, as well as one-of-a-kind high-resolution imagery from the Hubble Telescope, 6K RED Epic Dragon Camera, and other deep space probes that have never before been put into an UHD format for the public.

The newest programming airing on NASA TV includes programs like “NASA Edge,” which offers viewers down-to-earth answers for complicated engineering questions like the genesis of EDL (short for Entry, Descent and Landing), a NASA engineer’s moniker for the intricate steps required to bring a manned spacecraft from the top of an inhospitable atmosphere and back to safely on the ground. “NASA Edge” gives viewers an in-depth look at space age material and cutting-edge technologies, like new fabric designed by NASA that will be used to shield a spacecraft from the oppressive buildup of heat encountered when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. The channel is airing 4K video on technologies such as these: this so-called 3DMAT is a three-dimensional compression pad built out of 3D fibers and resin that’s going to be part of the agency’s trip to Mars.

That’s just the kind of in-depth knowledge that NASA TV is attempting to provide, Grubbs said. At its inception, NASA TV was touted as the first non-commercial UHD channel in North America.

A NEW ERA

A test version of the Orion spacecraft is pulled back like a pendulum and released, taking a dive into the 20-foot-deep Hydro Impact Basin at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Long gone are the stiff astronaut interviews of the 1970s — current programming on NASA TV is relying on modern editing techniques, 3D blueprints, cutting-edge graphics and high-end animations to better communicate the space agency’s mission to its viewers.

The continuously running channel features high-definition videos of unreal-looking scenarios — a point-of-view image of a booster parachuting down to Earth, a patchwork mosaic of images shot from the Mars Rover, brilliantly lit images of a burning Mercury surface captured from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, and full color animations detailing the colors and makeup of our solar system when it was in its infancy.

In mid-June of 2016, NASA TV will broadcast the painstaking process of returning three astronauts to Earth after 186 days on the International Space Station, including the live coverage of the farewell and hatch closure, the spacecraft’s deorbit burn and landing, and post-landing interviews.

On June 14, astronaut Tim Peake captured an image of the Cygnus cargo craft being released from the International Space Station.

That will mark nearly six months since the first NASA TV event was captured in Ultra High Definition. In December, NASA TV captured the launch of the Atlas V rocket, which carried supplies to the International Space Station. During that launch, NASA TV used a six 4K camera array, shooting at high frame rate and in high dynamic range. That footage was post-produced into a program encompassing the entire launch, and was aired on NASA TV the following day. Clips were set to be published in both HDR-10 and Hybrid Log Gamma HDR schemes.

“[That launch provided] more compelling content for the channel and allows us to demonstrate the technology by using high frame rate and high dynamic range UHD equipment, better documenting another milestone in the NASA story,” said Fred Brown, executive producer of NASA TV, at the time of the launch.

According to Harmonic, the end-to-end UHD production workflow that NASA TV is using is what makes it possible to go from a live shoot to on-air UHD delivery within a short time frame. The company pointed to the capabilities inherent in the channel’s UHD playout and live/linear encoding frame work. NASA TV is using a Harmonic Ellipse 3000 contribution encoder, a ProView 7100 integrated receiver-decoder, a MediaGrid shared storage system, a Polaris playout management suite, a Spectrum X media server system, an Electra X2 and Electra X3 advanced media processors, a ProMedia Origin packager and streaming video server, and a NSG Exo cable edge device.

“Partnering with Harmonic gives NASA an outlet for its UHD content, which has four times the resolution of HD and is the next iteration of digital television,” said Robert Jacobs, deputy associate administrator for the NASA Office of Communications.

Editing is handled with Apple’s Final Cut Pro using Adobe’s After Effects and Creative Suite. Color grading and high dynamic range processing is managed with Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. Complicated flyovers and animations for the channel are being created with Maxon’s Cinema 4D.

DEEP SPACE COVERAGE

When the channel debuted, NASA TV UHD consisted of eight new series that explored various facets of NASA’s space program, including “ISS Life,” documenting life on the space station from the first-person perspective of the astronauts; “Earth View,” the astronaut’s unique perception of our planet; “Solar System,” showing vibrant imagery of the earth’s neighboring planets and the sun; “Deep Space,” animated UHD still imagery captured from the Hubble telescope and other telescopic platforms; “NASA Classics,” important highlights from NASA’s history; “Mars,” a program dedicated to the red planet; “Liftoff,” an up-close look at spacecraft launches and rocket tests; and “Development,” detailing the training and R&D efforts that take place before each NASA mission.

This photo taken May 31, 2016, from the International Space Station captures sunlight glinting off Lake Balkhash, the second largest lake in Central Asia. Video and still images like this one are part of the trove of material being aired on the NASA TV channel.

This is not the agency’s first foray into high-resolution imagery, of course. “We started shooting in digital cinema and 4K several years ago,” Grubbs said, including documenting the last several Space Shuttle missions in the 4K format. “[We wanted to] document in a format that would have a long shelf life,” he said.

It was only fairly recently that NASA began to release video to the public as a 4K option on YouTube, but even then “that was pretty limited in scope,” Grubbs said. “Most people didn’t have full 4K resolution. It was a bit of a novelty.” When Harmonic presented the agency with the proposal to build a core channel around UHD, “I was excited by the notion of finally taking all of that off the shelf,” he said.

So far, some of Grubbs’ favorite images have been scenes from the International Space Station that were shot by the crew, both from inside the station and peering out into space from the small porthole windows.

“Those are pretty spectacular in high definition,” he said. “When you see it like that, it’s really breathtaking. It allows us to take people all over the world along for the ride in a way that we’ve never done in the past.”

“Not all of us get to fly in space, but in this kind of a format, you can kind of feel like you’re there and get a sense of what it’s like to be an astronaut.”

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