A Space Station, With Surveillance Cameras for Hire5 min read

LONDON — The two cameras sit on the Russian part of the International Space Station. They are named Theia and Iris. And they are available to hire out for “space-based video surveillance.”

The space station is generally viewed as a benign, multinational floating science lab. A Canadian astronaut memorably recorded David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from there. More recently, the American astronaut Scott Kelly has been helping grow zinnias during his yearlong stay, and he conducted an amusing interview with Stephen Colbert this month.

 The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station. The station was set up “for peaceful purposes” in 1998. Credit Chris Hadfield/NASA

The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station. The station was set up “for peaceful purposes” in 1998. Credit Chris Hadfield/NASA

Email traffic recently released by the European Commission revealed that a Canadian company pitched an idea to the European Union’s beleaguered border agency to use Theia and Iris for border surveillance. The company, called UrtheCast (pronounced “earth cast”), has a deal with the space station’s top Russian contractor, and operates the two cameras with the help of the Russian space agency.

The UrtheCast solicitation was among a number of business proposals made to the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, since 2013, aimed at helping Europe police its increasingly porous borders. The proposals ranged from the mundane to the outlandish. Businesses offered drones, zeppelins, tethered balloons and a floating contraption tied to a truck with a rope.

Airbus, a giant military contractor, contacted Frontex last year about what it called a “floating frontier surveillance platform” that could be used to monitor “inland waterways, and estuaries, lakes.” A Massachusetts company wanted to sell “a field-deployable Rapid DNA Analysis System” to generate DNA profiles “in 84 minutes.” A third company said it could create “algorithms to predict border crossings.”

But the most otherworldly idea belonged to UrtheCast. Its cameras, one for video and the other for still images, could be used for the “detection of borders activities,” UrtheCast said in an email to Frontex. UrtheCast said its cameras offered “an unprecedented capability for an integrated persistent space surveillance,” as well as what it called “extraction of situation awareness at certain regions, facilities or events.”

 Rome, as seen by UrtheCast’s camera on the International Space Station. Credit UrtheCast

Rome, as seen by UrtheCast’s camera on the International Space Station. Credit UrtheCast

The space station was set up “for peaceful purposes” in 1998 by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency. Is there a spy satellite lurking in its rafters? The UrtheCast solicitation pointed out that the cameras could “help to provide reliable evidences on certain events without intruding” on neighboring countries’ air space with airplanes or drones.

UrtheCast is hardly alone. More than 30 companies have been involved in commercial projects with the station, but those are generally research. Merck has studied antibodies, for example, and a subsidiary of Puma has tested coatings for golf clubs.

A spokesman for Frontex said that the agency did not accept UrtheCast’s offer, which was made in 2013, the year the cameras were launched into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Cosmonauts installed them the January after, though neither was fully operational for some time.

While it has been reported that the Russian space agency keeps all of the images taken of Russia, an UrtheCast executive, Jeff Rath, would not confirm or deny that in an interview. Nor would he provide details about his clients.

“We don’t talk about our customers,” Mr. Rath said. “We’ll sell to governments, and we’ll sell to businesses,” he said, as well as to nongovernmental organizations.

Pepsi and Heineken have used video from UrtheCast in commercials. And UrtheCast has signed a five-year, $65 million contract with an unnamed customer, according to Canadian securities filings.

One of its most recent filings said that “many government customers” needed satellite imagery “to supervise and manage, among other things, resources, animal migrations and national borders.” A variety of customers used UrtheCast services “to track environmental changes, natural disasters and human conflicts,” the filing said.

“We’ve got very strong support from our I.S.S. partners, NASA and Roscosmos,” Mr. Rath said, referring to the American and Russian space agencies. “Our support has been unwavering from both.”

Daniel Huot, a NASA spokesman, said in an email, “NASA did not have any involvement with the UrtheCast payload (it was pitched to and flown by our Russian colleagues) so I would have to direct you back to UrtheCast or Roscosmos.”

Roscosmos did not respond to requests for comment.

UrtheCast operates a subsidiary in Russia, and Sberbank, the state-owned bank that is Russia’s largest bank, owns more than 1 percent of UrtheCast’s shares, according to Morningstar, an investment research company. Fidelity, an investment firm based in Boston, owns nearly 15 percent.

The field of satellite imagery is competitive, since selling pictures from above is not as unusual anymore. In addition to dedicated spy satellites, there is a growing crop of companies with pictures to sell, or that offer their cameras for specific projects.

DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based company, says its satellites “are capable of collecting over one billion square kilometers of quality imagery per year.” The California start-up Planet Labs makes flocks of tiny satellites that it calls doves. Google paid $500 million in 2014 to purchase Skybox Imaging, a provider of satellite imagery.

There are about 1,400 active satellites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington environmental advocacy group that tracks satellites. They are used for all manner of purposes, like illuminating the effects of Somali piracy or revealing ancient earthworks in Kazakhstan.

“These high-definition imaging satellites used to be the exclusive domain of the major space powers,” said Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But now, Theia and Iris are becoming anything but space oddities. “The satellite imagery business is in a lot of flux,” she said.

Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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