Private spaceflight company SpaceX may be ready to join Google and Facebook in the race to spread Internet access worldwide. The founder of SpaceX, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, has reportedly been in early talks with a former Google executive on a $1-billion project to deploy a huge Internet satellite swarm.
The details of the SpaceX Internet discussions come from several anonymous sources familiar with the project who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. Musk has been talking with Greg Wyler, founder of WorldVu Satellites Ltd., about using a chunk of radio spectrum controlled by WorldVu for the Internet satellite swarm effort. They are said to be looking to launch about 700 satellites that each weigh under 250 pounds—roughly half of the size of the smallest communications satellites currently in use by commercial providers.
Wyler’s talks with Musk and SpaceX come at a time when both Google and Facebook have also been working to expand Internet access across the globe through satellites, drone fleets, and even balloons. Wyler previously joined Google to launch a similar Internet satellite effort through another of his companies, O3b Networks Ltd. But an earlier Wall Street Journal story reported that Wyler departed Google in September and had begun working together with Musk’s SpaceX.
Sources close to the new talks suggest that Wyler had left Google in part because he was unsure whether the company had the requisite manufacturing expertise for the huge satellite swarm effort. Since that time, Wyler and Musk have been talking about building an entirely new factory for manufacturing the Internet satellites.
But time may already be ticking on any possible venture between SpaceX and WorldVu, according to the Wall Street Journal. SpaceX already has its hands full with its current launch responsibilities for NASA’s resupply of the International Space Station and may not have the capacity for the satellite swarm launches until close to 2020. By that time, WorldVu’s window of time during which it has control of the radio spectrum block may be all but shut.
It’s unclear how Wyler’s departure from Google affected the tech giant’s own plans for an Internet satellite swarm. Still, Google has already been moving ahead with its other plans for broadening Internet access worldwide with Project Loon, a ring of solar-powered balloons that could begin delivering Internet service to mobile phone users in the Southern Hemisphere sometime in 2015. Both Google and Facebook have also drawn up plans for using drones as atmospheric satellites to spread Internet access.
Update: Elon Musk confirmed something similar to this project being in the works through his Twitter account on Nov. 10: “SpaceX is still in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations. Announcement in 2 to 3 months.”
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.