Above: a view of a “moonset,” as seen from the International Space Station and taken with NHK’s Super-Sensitivity HD camera. Courtesy of NHK
Fifty years ago, in 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to leave the earth’s atmosphere and enter the final frontier – space. While gazing at the world from his peculiar perch, in the cramped quarters of Vostok 1, he couldn’t contain his wonder. “The earth is blue,” he told his homeland’s Ground Control. “How wonderful. How amazing.”
Today, we see spellbinding images from the infinite via such marvels as the Hubble Telescope, and can follow outer space exploits of assorted missions, including that of the International Space Station, online. But the wonder remains.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK has historically proven itself to be on the vanguard when it comes to bringing such remarkable imagery to earthbound audiences. From 1992′s first live broadcast from the space shuttle, in which Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri gave a “space lesson” to elementary school children, to 2006′s first-ever live HD broadcast from the International Space Station (ISS), NHK has devoted considerable air-time and R&D to its space programming. Its current Cosmic Shore endeavor, which encompasses live broadcasts from the ISS and an upcoming three-part series, coproduced with Discovery Channel Canada, the National Film Board of Canada and France Télévisions, is the latest example of its commitment to bringing the amazement felt by Gagarin to audiences around the globe.
According to NHK senior producer Hideki Tazuke, the idea for the Cosmic Shore project crystallized in 2009, as an outgrowth of previous space series produced by the pubcaster. “All the past astronauts that we had worked with had commented about their strong impression about the beauty of our planet Earth [as] seen at night,” he says. But it was a beauty unseen by television audiences at that point, as camera technology didn’t have enough sensitivity to effectively capture the earth at night.
With the development by NHK’s technical team of a super-sensitive HD camera that could be used by an astronaut and could also withstand higher levels of radiation than previous iterations, the project took a major leap forward.
“Earlier high sensitivity cameras had been able to capture images in darkness but were often very delicate and required careful usage by a professional cameraman or otherwise broke when shooting bright images,” explains Tazuke. “With the new Super-Sensitivity HDTV (SS-HDTV) camera, it is possible to automatically adjust from dark to light shooting conditions. So it enables one to, say, shoot the sun and then shoot the earth in the darkness after sunset.
“It’s truly a revolutionary invention, and thanks to this camera, we are now able to see exactly what only astronauts could see with their eyes,” he adds.
In collaboration with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), NHK arranged to have one of the Japanese astronauts aboard the ISS, Satoshi Furukawa, learn to use the camera, and shoot footage for a live broadcast on September 18. During four 10-minute link-ups between the ISS and NHK, Furukawa would transmit images taken with the SS-HDTV camera back to Earth for broadcast. But they wouldn’t be just any images – producers wanted the astronaut to document examples of rare phenomena that hadn’t yet been captured from the vantage point of space in high quality HD. Those phenomena ranged from vivid auroras and lightning showers, to sparkling vistas of major cities at night and the most difficult event to capture, upper atmospheric lightning, or “sprites.”
Test runs of image transmissions proved that the camera, and the astronaut cameraman, could deliver great stuff. “From the beginning of the project, I wrestled with the fear that we might end up seeing or capturing nothing,” admits Tazuke. “I remember the first downlink images in July from the ISS; we saw nothing and I really understood how pitch black outer space is. So we were totally overwhelmed with emotion when we saw the second downlink images in August of the aurora, lightning, and the earth’s surface.
“We were so happy, the NHK and JAXA teams were almost in tears,” he says.
But ensuring that lightning would strike twice, especially in space, would be a formidable challenge.
“Considering that the ISS orbits the earth in 90 minutes and that it was essential to do the live linkups when the ISS was exactly in places where the sprites, lightning, auroras, and other phenomena occurs, the venture was unprecedented and extremely ambitious,” says Tazuke. Add to that the fact that air resistance in space means that the ISS has to frequently change its flight path, and you have ample room for disappointment.
“The director prepared 19 different scripts to cover conceivable situations,” recalls Tazuke.
“Of course, there was no chance of having the luxury of doing rehearsals. And of course, there was a great possibility that no phenomena would occur during the live linkup, along with the possibility that even though it might occur, the camera wouldn’t be able to capture that exact moment.
“The first live linkup of the broadcast was supremely nerve-racking,” he admits.
Thankfully, the stars aligned and the four live linkups delivered everything the crew on the earth was hoping to see. Auroras, city lights at night, lightning storms, sunrise and sunset, moonset, and airglow – the emission of light created by the earth’s atmosphere that insures that the sky is never completely dark, even at night – were all depicted. “It was as though the phenomena each appeared on cue,” marvels Tazuke.
It also helped that Satoshi Furukawa proved to be as skillful a cameraman as an astronaut, focusing and panning in zero gravity and positioning himself and the camera to get the best shots during the 10-minute intervals.
Shooting on the ISS is continuing, in order to create more content for the three-part series, which will begin airing in Japan in April of 2012. While Furukawa will be returning home at the end of November and handing off the SS-HDTV camera to another astronaut, he’s being tasked with one more money shot – an aurora fly-through, never before captured in HD. But even if he doesn’t get that shot, Tazuke says the impact the live broadcasts have had on audiences in Japan has made the project a complete success; an impact that he hopes the upcoming mini-series will receive internationally.
“Through this mission, I reconfirmed the significance of ‘live’ broadcasting,” he says. “Aside from the excitement of the NHK and JAXA staff all cheering and applauding every time we received images of an aurora or other phenomenon, the inspirational emotion created by knowing that these phenomena are happening at that very moment leaves us speechless.
“I think the notion that the universe is connected to the earth we are living on is what touches us,” he continues. “During the live broadcast, there was a surge of tweets on Twitter, so I think the audience also felt this. And I was touched once again to experience this amazing moment with the audience.”