And for Elon Musk’s next trick, satellites that beam down Internet
Elon Musk, a man whose credentials are becoming ridiculously long and complicated, is considering adding “man that helped bring Internet to the whole world” to his list of accomplishments. According to the Wall Street Journal, Musk is working with former Google executive Greg Wyler to launch hundreds of lightweight satellites that would beam down Internet to even the most remote parts of the Earth.
While this is all still in the very early stages, the plan would actually involve several major innovations and advancements, not just one. To start, the plan would begin with the launch of 700 communications satellites that would orbit the world, which is roughly ten times what the largest satellite network currently operates. These satellites would also need to be of a completely new design, and weigh 250 pounds – about half of what the average communications satellite currently weighs. Modern satellites also each cost millions of dollars to manufacture. The goal for the new models would be to get the production costs under $1 million each.
It’s all doable, but it would be betting on things that haven’t yet been invented. Even if Musk and Wyler are willing to take that risk, other investors might not be.
The plan would combine Musk and Wyler’s two companies, with Musk relying on SpaceX to carry the satellites into orbit. SpaceX has successfully completed several cargo runs into space using the Falcon 9 craft, but for this plan to have a chance of succeeding SpaceX will need to exponentially increase its launch capabilities. At the moment, the Falcon 9 has accomplished a dozen successful missions over the last five years, and has more than four dozen launches scheduled over the next four years. Commercial spaceflight has come a long way quickly, but the last few weeks have shown that it is a far from stable industry.
SpaceX may face fallout from the recent Virgin Galactic disaster, which cost the life of one pilot and badly injured another. Days before that, Orbital Science’s Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch. Both accidents may bring increased scrutiny to the private space industry, and both show its volatile nature.
Wyler, on the other hand,would provide much of the satellite expertise as the founder of WorldVu Satellites Ltd., which currently controls a large portion of the radio spectrum. His company would need to clear the use of large portions of the radio spectrum with other satellite operators to make the plan work. It’s certainly possible, but it’s far from certain that WorldVu will be able to obtain that additional spectrum.
Wyler originally brought the plan to Google, who was interested enough to keep the project in development for over a year. He eventually parted ways from his former company though, claiming Google didn’t have the manufacturing expertise. From there he went to Musk.
Musk and Wyler will now begin to look for construction facilities. Early negotiations are said to be underway with state officials in Florida and Colorado.
Before that, however, the duo will need to secure capital and find multiple partners, plus there are countless legal hurdles, permits, and issues that will need to be resolved. They will also face competition from others that are looking to bring the Internet to less developed parts of the world through various means that may end up being more cost effective, including drones, balloons, and more.
Others have tried to deliver telephone and Internet service from space, but the high costs made it impractical. With Wyler helping to provide the satellite expertise, and Musk using his own line of spacecraft, there is a good chance they could pull it off. Musk’s incredible reputation won’t hurt either.