ESA / M6 – Editing the HuffPost
EURO 2020 – Match day for the Blues! Didier Deschamps’ men face Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in Budapest on Wednesday 23 June for the last match of the group stages. And the French team will be able to count on an additional supporter in the person of Thomas Pesquet!
The French astronaut, who has returned to the international space station since April 24, will be able to watch the meeting in his spare time thanks to the work of “Crew support”. This team is responsible for taking care of astronauts on a mission. Andreas Orth has been working since 2013 in this service of the European Space Agency (ESA) based in Cologne, Germany. He explains to HuffPost the specificities and constraints of broadcasting a Euro 2020 match in the ISS.
The HuffPost: Can you explain the role of Crew Support to us?
Andreas Orth: The mission of Crew Support is to help astronauts on a personal level and to make their life aboard the ISS as “normal” as possible so that they can fully concentrate on their mission. Crew Support collects and responds to very personal requests from astronauts. For example, we have regular video meetings with the families of astronauts.
What difficulties do you face in broadcasting a match in orbit?
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The first issue we face, whether the game is live or not, is digital rights. If you are watching a match on the site of a French TV channel, there is a good chance that there are geo-blocks that prevent you from watching the match from other parts of the world. This is the first thing we have to deal with when we plan to broadcast a game on the ISS. We get in touch with the channels and explain the situation to them to clarify this from a legal point of view. Once we have talked to the right people, we always manage to find a solution. They can unblock a very specific IP address that will be used on a computer in Houston, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
What happens next?
This computer is used to establish the ISS astronaut connection for each live event. We use the same bandwidth which also allows for press conferences or live interviews. Outside of working hours, we usually broadcast CNN, ESPN to them … any TV channel the crew chooses.
We do a test to verify with them that Houston has access to the live broadcast. Of course, there are a lot of computer security issues. We need to make sure all firewalls allow access and then the process is straightforward. NASA in Houston simply broadcasts the stream live and then sends it to the ISS.
Is it really live or there is a delay?
There may be a delay of three or four seconds at the most. So it’s almost live. When France scores a goal, Thomas will see it almost at the same time as all the French!
Are you having other problems?
All communications with the ISS are via satellite. The ISS is in orbit just 400 km away and is going very, very fast. The commands, the telemetry, whatever we want to send to the astronauts goes through the geostationary satellite network. This network only revolves around the earth once every 24 hours, so much slower than the ISS. We therefore have to change satellites to continue communicating with the ISS every 45 minutes. So there is always a brief loss of signal at this point and that obviously shows up when watching a match live. This can take a few seconds to several minutes.
Can they see all the matches in the competition?
Some games are broadcast in the afternoon, and astronauts do not have time to watch them due to their busy schedules on the ISS. That’s why the first match Thomas will be able to watch live will be the France-Portugal match on June 23.
We also send them the delayed matches, but it obviously doesn’t have the same flavor for them as a live match. Thomas did not tell us if he had watched the France-Germany meeting. Maybe he didn’t mention it because it wasn’t a good game for us (Andreas Orth is German, editor’s note) and wanted to be nice!
How important is it to entertain the astronauts on the ISS?
At first the missions on the ISS were relatively short, then they got longer and longer, and now the missions last from six months to a year. You can be 200% focused because there is a lot of work involved and not need free time for yourself for a few weeks or months. But after a while, you have to change your mind a bit. They are in a confined space, they are alone up there … so we try to organize small moments in the day that make them feel better so that they keep their morale up. It even improves their productivity. They are well trained, they love their work, but we must not forget the human factor in these space missions.
In addition to seeing matches, you also allow them to see films, how does that work?
They get two and a half hours of exercise a day and this is the time they usually use to watch movies. They have a large database from which they can choose freely. It’s something similar to what we might have on Earth, like Netflix for example, except it’s not streaming, everything is already loaded into the computer. In addition to this, Thomas can request other films. Most of the astronauts are Russian and American, and the films are from these countries. Thomas can therefore ask for French productions, for example. We have the same process: the files are sent to Houston which is responsible for transmitting them directly to the ISS. Again, we need to make sure we follow all laws regarding digital rights.
Also on The HuffPost: Thomas Pesquet takes a guided tour of the Crew Dragon capsule