With rocket launch, SpaceX to be first private firm to travel beyond low-Earth orbit

SpaceX is on its way to delivering NASA’s DISCOVR satellite to orbit after a succesfull rocket launch today, a feat that will make it the first private company to travel beyond the inner ring of Earth’s orbit. The satellite will travel 1 million miles to a location between the Earth and the Sun, where it will spot solar flares up to an hour before they hit Earth and take daily images of the planet.

Spire wants to improve weather forecasting with tiny satellites

Will you need a raincoat or shorts tomorrow? Chances are the weather data you use to determine the answer comes from the roughly 20 satellites orbiting Earth that monitor weather systems. And as we all know, their data isn’t always enough to produce a reliable forecast.

The Powersat3 Spire satellite.

The Lemur-1 Spire satellite.

Spire, a San Francisco startup that is currently testing a small group of shoebox-sized satellites, will announce Thursday that it will put its soon-to-launch fleet of commercial satellites to work collecting an unprecedented amount of weather data. Spire will have 20 satellites orbiting Earth by the end of this year, and at least 100 3.5 years from now if all goes according to plan. Together, the satellites will eventually provide 100 times more information.

“We want to take advantage of technology that’s available, technology that we have developed, and move weather forecasting into an entirely different realm,” CEO Peter Platzer said in an interview.

He likened the current state of weather forecasting to driving to a gas station and purchasing a paper map. With more satellites, the experience will be more akin to pulling up Google Maps on a mobile device.

Spire CEO Peter Platzer

Spire CEO Peter Platzer

Platzer foresees a public/private partnership that moves weather forecasting off of the government and onto private companies, which will be able to provide it for a fraction of the cost.

Spire’s satellites will measure the humidity, temperature and pressure — the three main ingredients of weather forecasting — of Earth’s atmosphere. The sensors are attached to satellites designed to only last a few years. There are so many that if one fails it doesn’t take down the entire system, and replacements with even newer technology will be launched frequently.

Spire is among a growing number of startups to be launching large constellations of satellites into space. Many of the earliest entrants, such as Planet Labs, have been focusing on imaging. Big players like SpaceX and Google are looking at satellite-based internet. Spire is the first to name weather as a major part of its business plan.

“We are just unwilling to accept that the way people think about the weather is just the way it is,” Platzer said. “We think it’s very un-Silicon Valley.”

SpaceX raises $1 billion from Google, Fidelity

SpaceX has raised a $1 billion financing round from Google and Fidelity, which now own just under 10 percent of the ambitious space startup.

The investment comes days after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans to build a fleet of small satellites that would bring internet to underserved regions of the world. While the satellites cost far less to produce than their larger, traditional cousins currently favored by telecommunications companies, SpaceX will still need hundreds of millions of dollars to produce 700 of them.

My colleague Kevin Fitchard recently outlined how Musk believes these satellites can create a stronger, faster internet network by bouncing data around the globe much more quickly than if it had to travel by cable. He writes:

Though any traffic would have to got through the Earth’s atmosphere twice, once that data stream is 750 miles up, it would make only a few satellite hops across a near vacuum, through which electromagnetic waves travel much faster than through a fiber optic cable. So what Musk is promising to do is not only build an internet to connect the furthest corners of the planet, but a create a network that would draw those far corners much closer together.

SpaceX had previously raised $245.5 million from investors like Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Valor Equity Partners and Capricorn. Each rocket or spacecraft costs hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and millions to launch, so it’s not surprising that SpaceX is interested in such huge rounds. The startup has lofty ambitions even beyond its satellite fleet, such as sending humans to Mars, which will require a huge investment in research and development over the coming decade.

Google actually already has its own experimental aerial internet program. It’s called Project Loon, and it relies on balloons. It acquired satellite imaging company Skybox last year.

Planet Labs raises $95M to keep sending satellites into orbit

Satellite startup Planet Labs has raised a fresh $95 million — $70 million in Series C funding and $25 million of debt financing, it announced Tuesday. The rounds bring the total amount it has received to $160.1 million.

Planet Labs also introduced Tom Barton as its new COO. Barton, who spent many years in venture capital, served as CEO of computing company SGI until 2007. Former Planet Labs COO Robbie Schingler will retain his titles as co-founder and president.

Planet Labs founders Chris Boshuizen, Robbie Schingler and Will Marshall on the roof of their old SoMA office.

Planet Labs founders Chris Boshuizen, Robbie Schingler and Will Marshall on the roof of their old SoMA office.

The Series C round was led by repeat investor Data Collective, which will add its co-managing partner Zachary Bogue to Planet Labs’ board. Western Technology Investment contributed the $25 million.

Planet Labs uses a large flock of shoebox-sized satellites to capture images of the Earth, which it then sells to customers like engineering and design firm Woolpert and mapping company Geoplex.

It regularly sends new satellites to space on rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Because the satellites are so much smaller and simpler (their brains are equivalent to an Android phone) than the traditional options, they are built to last just a few years before being replaced.

Crops in Brazil, photographed by a Planet Labs Dove.

Crops in Brazil, photographed by a Planet Labs Dove.

Elon Musk’s satellite plan: Project Loon without helium or latency

Elon Musk dropped a bomb from near-earth orbit on Friday at an event in Seattle: Instead of working with mini-satellite startup OneWeb to build an internet network in the heavens (as was widely expected) Musk told Bloomberg he plans on creating a globe-spanning constellation of his own, launching hundreds, if not thousands, of interconnected satellites each weighing as much as a Vespa.

This is the kind of bold plan we’ve come to expect from Musk, but unlike his past grand-scale projects, the idea for this one isn’t entirely new. The most obvious example is [company]OneWeb[/company]’s planned constellation of 648 satellites. Formerly know as WorldVu, the company was founded by ex-Google satellite chief Greg Wyler and has backing from [company]Virgin[/company] and [company]Qualcomm[/company].

But there are also already satellite constellations in the sky supplying internet access to any point on Earth, most notably Iridium and Globalstar’s networks, though neither one is offering what you would consider broadband speeds. And if we’re looking to make comparisons to other internet projects out there, we need look no further than [company]Google[/company].

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

When a balloon looks like a satellite

There are surprising similarities between Project Loon and Musk’s proposed SpaceX network as well as OneWeb. The two projects not only appear to share the goals – to connect the farthest corners of the Earth with low-cost internet – but the basic architectures of the networks would be the same.

Google is building a vast network of balloons that surf the stratospheric winds 12 miles up in loosely defined latitudinal orbits around the world. Those balloons use a radio broadband link to connect to transmitters on the ground and mesh networking techniques to link to the other balloons on the horizon, creating a kind of floating internet in the sky. Data is passed from balloon to balloon until it’s within site of a ground receiver, which offloads that data into the internet proper.

Musk’s plan calls for essentially the same scheme, just 740 miles higher up. The original talk of 700 orbiters has now turned into plans for a a constellation with as many as 4,00o satellites. In low-earth orbit, those satellites would be skimming the top of the Earth’s atmosphere, 30 times closer to the surface (and your PC or smartphone) than the geostationary satellites that today carry the bulk of our orbital internet traffic. They won’t be floating like Loon Balloons, but those satellites are still bound by the laws of physics. At that altitude, they’ll need to travel at 16,000 mph and would complete a full orbit of the Earth in a little less than two hours – otherwise they’d fall out of the sky.

That means from a vantage point on Earth these birds will be whizzing overhead. So as with Loon, an Earth-based transmitter won’t be connecting to a single Musk-built orbiter, but multiple. Both balloon and satellite would pass your connection on to the next balloon or satellite as they pass overhead. Data would then flow from balloon to balloon and from satellite to satellite until they found their appropriate ground-based links.

An Iridium flare

An Iridium flare

If you want to get a more concrete of visual, you need only look to the night sky (with a little help from this website). [company]Iridium[/company]’s network of satellites have highly reflective antennas, which produce “flares” when they reflect the Sun’s light, making them resemble shooting stars.

A new spin on the orbital constellation

As those Iridium flares readily demonstrate, there’s already plenty of hardware in the heavens dedicated to providing global internet access. What will Musk or OneWeb’s constellations do that Iridium or [company]Globstar[/company]’s won’t? Or for that matter what Project Loon or other sky-bound internet projects like Facebook’s drones?

While Iridium and Globalstar may have pioneered the globe-spanning internet constellation, they also have limited number of satellites in the sky (66 for Iridium, 32 for Globalstar). Putting more birds in orbit is the equivalent of adding more towers to an urban cellular network: fewer people are connecting to the same cells so every user can tap faster speeds and there’s more overall capacity throughout the entire system.

An Iridium Next satellite

An Iridium Next satellite

Iridium and Globalstar are also focused on providing mobile internet connectivity from satellite phones and modems to a network far above. That’s very useful for leaving a GPS breadcrumb trail for a lost airplane or maintaining contact with dog sleds racing in the Iditarod, but Musk appears to have more stationary transmitters in mind. A high-power antenna aimed at a satellite can produce a lot higher data speeds than one you carry in your backpack.

And while Globalstar and Iridium may have had cutting edge technology at one point, they leave a lot to be desired today. Iridium’s current network is slower than a dial-up modem, and the new Iridium Next network Iridium is launching into space starting this year – ironically on the back of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 — will support a 15 Mbps to a stationary dish antenna.

It ain’t easy running satellites

It takes a long time to plan, design, build and deploy a satellite network. The birds that Iridium is rolling onto the launch pad this year were designed several years ago, and the network won’t be fully operational until 2017 when the last of 66 orbiters are in place.

Musk will be working with newer technology (The Information has it that SpaceX is weighing using optical lasers instead of radio spectrum), and being Elon Musk, he’ll likely be facing a much shorter development timeline (it helps to have the resources of SpaceX at your disposal). But once he gets those birds in space, he’ll likely face many of the same hurdles as other satellite providers. His technology will be frozen in time. These satellites aren’t exactly easy to fix if they break, and upgrading a satellite usually mean sending to fiery death in the Earth’s atmosphere and replacing it with a new one.

A look at the various satellite orbits. Musk's proposed network would sit in low-earth orbit.

A look at the various satellite orbits. Musk’s proposed network would sit in low-earth orbit.

One of the advantages to Project Loon is that Google’s network will be much more accessible. A Loon balloon will circumnavigate the world three times before coming down for regularly scheduled maintenance. Even [company]Facebook[/company]’s drones can be flown down for repairs and upgrades.

But Musk seems to be counting on his orbital network doing something those atmosphere-hugging projects can’t: create a better, faster internet. I’m not talking about speed here, but latency – the delay data undergoes when traversing the globe. When connecting in San Jose to a server in Sydney, your request is hitting multiple routers before it even arrives at the undersea cable to begin its long journey across the Pacific, and all of those steps introduce latency.

Musk claims he can build a purer, simpler internet in the heavens. Though any traffic would have to got through the Earth’s atmosphere twice, once that data stream is 750 miles up, it would make only a few satellite hops across a near vacuum, through which electromagnetic waves travel much faster than through a fiber optic cable. So what Musk is promising to do is not only build an internet to connect the furthest corners of the planet, but a create a network that would draw those far corners much closer together.

There’s enough of a difference between Loon and Musk’s plan, that Google may view them as complimentary technologies, and according to the Information’s report, Google is considering investing in the SpaceX project.

This post was updated on Jan. 21 to note that the size of SpaceX’s planned constellation has grown from 700 to 4000 satellites.

Virgin, Qualcomm invest in SpaceX’s satellite partner

There are billions of people who do not have access to the internet, and tech’s biggest brands want to change that. Qualcomm and Virgin joined the fray today by announcing investments in WorldVu, now known as OneWeb, a satellite communications company that recently paired with SpaceX to build a fleet of 648 small satellites.

Neither company said how much they put into OneWeb, but both will contribute a member to its board. Virgin Galactic will deliver the satellites to orbit on its planned LauncherOne rocket, which is expected to be able to launch for a relatively inexpensive $10 million.

OneWeb plans to build each satellite for around $350,000, the Wall Street Journal reports. They will weigh 258 pounds and sit 750 miles above Earth.

Satellites can relay an internet connection to remote parts of the world that are difficult to reach with more traditional internet infrastructure. Companies like Google and Facebook are also pursuing satellite fleets, plus alternatives like balloons and drones.

En route to Mars, Elon Musk will build satellites in Seattle

Elon Musk and former Google executive Greg Wyler have a plan to build hundreds of small satellites, and as of today it looks like they will be built in Seattle.

The Seattle SpaceX engineering office will employ several hundred to a thousand people, according to Bloomberg. Musk and Wyler first announced their preliminary plans in November to build 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds, each costing less than $1 million to produce.

“We’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets,” Musk said at a press conference at SpaceX headquarters, Bloomberg reported.

At 250 pounds, the satellites would fall in size between traditional communications satellites weighing several tons and the tiny shoebox-sized alternatives favored by modern startups. A fleet of 700 satellites has never been done.

Wyler, who previously ran Google’s satellite division, is now the founder of WorldVu Satellites. He owns a portion of the radio spectrum, which the satellites could use to provide internet to previously inaccessible parts of the world.

The satellites would generate revenue that would go toward Musk’s dream to colonize Mars, plus teach his team the details of space communication. He said during a Reddit AMA last week that he plans to reveal further details about the SpaceX craft that would carry the first humans to the planet in the mid-2020s by the end of this year.

Elon Musk confirms SpaceX is working on a giant fleet of satellites

SpaceX is getting into the satellite business. CEO Elon Musk confirmed via tweet that the rocket company is in the early stages of creating a large fleet of micro-satellites, and there will be an announcement about it in 2 to 3 months. A Wall Street Journal report last week outlined plans for 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds. It stated Musk is working with Greg Wyler, the former head of Google’s satellite division, who owns a portion of the radio spectrum. The satellites could be used to provide internet to remote parts of the planet.