It’s been a tough week for Elon Musk’s ‘main’ company Tesla. The electric car maker’s share price has dropped over 12% after disappointed Q1 results were announced, taking the year’s market cap losses to around 40%. But not one to wallow, the eccentric entrepreneur’s ‘side project’, the private rocket company SpaceX, has just launched 60 small satellites as part of its plan to provide global internet coverage.
The satellites represent the first stage of a network, or constellation, of satellites that will beam high-speed internet signals to earth from space. The hope is that the network, which has been named ‘Starlink’, will allow for global internet coverage, even in remote rural areas, circumventing the need to lay millions of miles of cable at great, and not commercially viable, cost.
The rocket that carried the satellites into orbit was a Falcon 9 that lifted off from Florida’s legendary Cape Canaveral at Thursday 22:30 local time – 02:30 am on Friday in the UK. After successfully launching its payload into orbit around an hour after take-off, the Falcon 9’s main, re-usable booster rocket successfully returned to earth and landed on a barge located at sea in the Atlantic Ocean.
Finding a way to reuse rocket boosters has been key to SpaceX and the Starlink’s business model. It makes launching rockets, and putting satellites into orbit, much cheaper than if the whole launch system had to be replaced for each new load sent into space.
SpaceX’s stated long term ambition is to operate a commercial service offering passengers trips to the moon. And eventual colonisation of Mars. But in the meanwhile, it is hoped the revenue Musk believes can be generated from the Starlink global internet service, and cost efficiently launching the satellites of other paying customers, will fund progress towards those ultimate goals.
For Starlink to be fully operational, SpaceX will have to launch another 12 similar satellite loads into space. SpaceX does, however, have competition. OneWeb, backed by Airbus and Softbank’s Vision Fund, is building a similar satellite network, with its own first launch taking place in February.
The difference between the satellite networks now being built up by SpaceX and OneWeb and those that already exist is that theirs will consist of more, smaller satellites orbiting much closer to earth. This new approach has been facilitated by advances in the latest technology in the world of computer chips and laser signals. SpaceX plan a Starlink network consisting of a total of 12,000 satellites and plan to launch 2000 a year.
While Starlink is a commercial, not altruistic, venture that analysts believe could eventually be worth as much as $50 billion in annual revenues to SpaceX, its role in making cheap internet access available globally could have a huge impact on improving the lives and economies of the world’s poorest and most remote societies. It would open up access to education and the digital economy and to some extent compensate for the poor infrastructure in such areas, which is a bottleneck economic development.