Building on SpaceX and Tesla Experience, Elon Musk Looks at Global Broadband Satellites

Is Elon Musk about to launch a revolution in satellite construction similar to the one he began at SpaceX which has is already altering the economics of how they are launched?

The Wall Street Journal apparently thinks so, based on a story by Rolfe Winkler and Andy Pasztor. According to the report, Musk is considering teaming up with former Google exec Greg Wyler, who also founded O3b, a company attempting to bring internet service to the world’s “other three billion” by way of a satellite constellation orbiting at 8,000 kilometers, in Medium Earth Orbit. O3b went active on September 1st 2014 with eight birds in orbit, and is anticipating the launch of an additional 4 spacecraft in 2015.

Long before it went live however, Wyler, along with several associates, left O3b and joined Google in a move which helped prompt rumors that the internet giant was getting into the satellite business in a major way, with the goal of bringing internet connectivity to virtually the entire planet.  For reasons which are not at all clear, the partnership did not pan out, and Wyler departed Google earlier this year, taking with him satellite spectrum rights through a separate company he owns, WorldVu LLC.

Combined with the fact that Wyler has apparently been spending a great deal of time with Elon Musk and SpaceX, the basic suggestion put forward in the WSJ story has more than a little credibility. Caution however should be in order. Pasztor’s prior reporting on SpaceX has been subject to question.

Nevertheless, the story, which is based on unnamed sources states:

“In talks with industry executives, Messrs. Musk and Wyler have discussed launching around 700 satellites, each weighing less than 250 pounds, the people familiar with the matter said. That is about half the size of the smallest communications satellites now in commercial use. The constellation would be 10 times the size of the largest current fleet, managed by Iridium Communications Inc.”

Much like the Google venture, the purpose would be to offer orbital based broadband on a grand scale, and would be set up as a separate company, building on Musk’s manufacturing experience with both Space and Tesla to bring down the cost of mass produced smallsats.

With low cost launches presumably offered by SpaceX, the as yet unnamed venture might offer a new source of revenue for Musk’s launch business, but it is not without risks.  Most CEO’s rarely appreciate it when a supplier elects to go into business against them. On the other hand, for the satellite and launch industries, close relations are the norm. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences all build commercial satellites, and all have a stake in the launch business, even if they find it difficult to win commercial orders for their launchers. Moreover, Orbital in particular has used its own experience and hardware in medium sized satellites for its Cygnus cargo vehicles. It is not difficult to envision SpaceX providing a sort of reverse flow of experience for a new mass produced line of smallsats.

For those looking a little further down the road, consider this. If there is anything to be learned from a study of Elon Musk, it that in addition to being a serial entrepreneur who delights in taking on established industries, he is nearly always thinking several steps ahead. Deep experience in satellite manufacturing bodes well for Musk’s long term vision of settling Mars. Though sometimes overlooked in the altogether more exciting discussions of massive launch vehicles, landing craft and and surface habitats, a robust, commercial communications backbone between Earth and the Red Planet is ultimately just as important a piece of infrastructure in making that dream come true. It’s a fair guess that in debating whether to jump in to yet another large scale industrial venture, Musk is very much intrigued by the possibility of getting a head start on solving that particular problem.

Posted in: Space Settlement, SpaceX

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