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NASA Counts Down to UHD Liftoff

Ultra HD (UHD) or 4K video has been heavily hyped for several years but until recently the content available for early adopters who’ve bought the next generation in TV sets has been limited to streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Sony and some specific TV manufacturers.

Over the last six weeks, however, there have been some notable signs of that changing, with DirecTV launching a box for 4K movies in August, and both Intelsat and NASA fi ring up new services in September. And later this year, Comcast is expected to introduce a 4K-capable set-top box.

Both the Intelsat and NASA channels, which rely heavily on UHD infrastructures set up and run by Harmonic, also illustrate how vendors are providing new services to help jumpstart the delivery of UHD content.

For the first phase of the Intelsat launch, which is designed to provide programmers and operators with a system to test their ability to deliver UHD, Harmonic is providing the content, which is edited and compressed using the High Efficiency Video Coding codec at the vendor’s San Jose HVN facility. After being sent to Intelsat’s Atlanta facility, the feed is then uplinked to the Intelsat Galaxy 13 satellite, which sends the feed to pay-TV operators. The Galaxy satellite reaches 98% of the cable head-ends in the continental U.S.

In the second phase, which will begin in the next four to eight weeks, they will move playout to the Harmonic San Jose headquarters, where the vendor will effectively “produce and operate the channel,” explained Peter Alexander, CMO of Harmonic.

“If one of our customers wanted to wait on the expense of making a capital purchase of the equipment, then we can do an operating agreement for us to deploy it and operate it,” Alexander said.

For the launch of NASA UHD, the space agency partnered with Harmonic for the channel, which is produced by Harmonic and jointly operated by NASA and Harmonic. Harmonic is also talking to pay-TV operators about carrying the channel, which will also be streamed on the Internet to anyone who has a 4K TV and an Internet connection of at least 13Mbps.

NASA has been shooting 4K and even higher resolutions for a while, including 4K images from the International Space Station (ISS) from a Red Epic Dragon camera. Other content will come from the Hubble Space Telescope, current NASA missions, remastered footage from previous missions and ultimately live launches in 4K. Unlike the science-oriented NASA TV channel in HD, NASA UHD will focus on ambient viewing experiences and provide 2160p60 video.


“NASA wanted to show consumers how they’re spending tax dollars and help consumers get as close as possible to being in space,” Alexander said. “UHD is an ideal media to do that and NASA already has a lot of material, most of it never seen before. It is really incredible footage that will give you the experience of what earth looks like from the space station.”

The channel also highlights a number of technologies that will be important for future UHD launches. Using the next-generation HEVC compression system with the Electra X2, Harmonic was able to reduce the bandwidth needed for NASA’s existing HD channel so that there is room for both NASA TV and NASA UHD on the same transponder of the SES AMC-18C satellite currently used for NASA TV.

That compression also reduces the bandwidth for NASA UHD down to about 13Mbps. A test signal is already up in the clear on AMC-18, with full launch Nov. 1.

NASA and Harmonic are also exploring high dynamic range and wider color gamut for the feeds, with tests expected by year-end.

The service, transmitted from NASA’s Atlanta uplink facility, also relies on Harmonic’s HVN production center and its Spectrum X advanced media server system, the Electra X3 advanced media processor, ProMedia Origin packager and streaming video server, Ellipse 3000 contribution encoder, ProView 7100 IRD, MediaGrid shared storage system, Polaris playout management suite and the NSG Exo-distributed Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) system.