SpaceTime Enterprises hopes to offer virtual reality astronaut experiences by beaming back live images of the Earth from space. Photograph: SpaceTime Enterprises
It’s the dream of any would-be space tourist: seeing our home planet from above. First you see the Earth’s horizon curve away, and then the luminous thin envelope of atmosphere that keeps us all alive comes into focus.
As you cross the daylight side of Earth, you look down to see gigantic landscapes – mountains and valleys – beneath you. As your orbit continues, so night falls and the city lights turn on. Now you can see the human landscape of the planet.
It is an experience said to be so profound that many astronauts say it permanently alters the way they think of the world and humanity. Psychologists now recognise this and call it the overview effect.
No wonder then that a number of companies are vying to build rockets to take space tourists on the trip of a lifetime. But with the cost of even the cheapest tickets running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, it seems likely to be an experience most of us will be denied. Or does it?
Now two UK-based companies have joined forces to offer the experience to virtually anyone. And the key word is virtual.
Immersive content studio Rewind and the space industry experts at In-Space Missions have launched SpaceTime Enterprises. They plan to launch multiple satellites that will broadcast real-time immersive video of the entire Earth. To plug into this view, the only thing needed will be a set of virtual reality goggles.
“We want it to become commonplace to ‘be’ in space because by being in space you actually connect with the planet,” says Doug Liddle, CEO of In-Space Missions.
With £2.5m of funding in place, the first satellite is scheduled for launch in September 2019. It will carry cameras that can deliver images of the whole Earth at the same resolution that your eye could see from up there. So the first views when you strap on the VR goggles will be like looking out the window of the International Space Station, seeing what the satellite is currently flying over.
As the company launches more satellites and increases its database, virtual reality will give way to augmented reality. “In three to five years we hope to offer views of anywhere on Earth in real time,” says Matt Vernon-Clinch of Rewind.
In this situation, users will no longer be tethered to the satellites; instead, they will be able to fly around Earth and zoom in on areas of interest. This means the data could also be used for business and scientific applications.
“You could track plastics in the ocean,” says Vernon-Clinch. “There are lots of environmental spin-outs. We will listen to our audience to see what they want.”
Earth observation has certainly been one of the principal uses of satellites during the space age. Indeed, the ability to see the whole world and to take scientific measurements of it has spurred the environmental movement and now helps inform government policy because of concerns about climate change.
Unsurprisingly, given the enormous potential for applications, SpaceTime Enterprises is not the only company planning to bring such views down to Earth.
San Francisco-based SpaceVR has already launched a test satellite, Overview 1, to the International Space Station. It is currently onboard, waiting to be deployed through a system called the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer.
UK-based firm Earth-i is also building a constellation of satellites to provide very high-resolution imagery of the Earth. Its VividX2 test satellite was launched on 12 January from India, and just a few weeks ago, the company posted its first colour videos from space, showing aircraft taxiing along runways and cars driving down highways.
Clearly the potential for this technology is extraordinary. “When we get this right, it will be everywhere,” says Sol Rogers, CEO and founder of Rewind.
So prepare for a world in which almost any of us can see what used to be the privileged view of astronauts. And perhaps that leads to the most fascinating aspect of all of this.
Will it change our attitude towards the world and its inhabitants as dramatically as it has done with astronauts? Does the overview effect rely on actually making the trip into space, or can it be activated using a virtual reality setup?
If SpaceTime Enterprises and the other companies succeed in making these views as widely available as they hope, the world’s largest psychology experiment could be about to begin.