SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk unveils plans for a satellite manufacturing center in Seattle. Credit: Washington Aerospace Partnership/Twitter

Jan 23, 2015 Tech titans taking Internet ambitions to space

Sen—Google's investment in Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, which plans to add satellite manufacturing to its bustling rocket launching business, may put it into competition with another newly announced satellite venture founded by a former employee and backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Google and Fidelity announced this week it was investing $1 billion in SpaceX, which plans to open a satellite manufacturing center in Seattle. It would be SpaceX’s first foray beyond rocketry. With its investment, Google and Fidelity now own just under 10 percent of SpaceX.

Musk, who also founded and runs the Tesla electric car company, among other technology ventures, wants to develop a constellation of some 4,000 small satellites that can provide Internet access worldwide.

“In order for us to really revolutionize space, we have to address both satellites and rockets,” Musk said in Seattle last week. “We’re going to start by building our own constellation of satellites, but that same satellite bus and the technology we develop can also be used for Earth science and space science, as well as other potential applications that others may have.”

Musk confirmed the $1 billion Google/Fidelity investment four days later.

Google’s interest in space extends beyond satellites. It is backing a competition run by the XPrize Foundation, which will award $30 million to privately funded teams landing and operating spacecraft on the Moon.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin also has an option for a tourist flight to the International Space Station, which now costs more than $50 million, said Tom Shelley, president of U.S.-based Space Adventures, which arranges the rides on Russian Soyuz capsules.

The timing of Google’s investment in SpaceX is curious. The day before Musk unveiled his satellite business, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Qualcomm announced a joint investment in another aspiring Internet-via-satellite company called OneWeb, whose founder and chief executive is Greg Wyler.

Wyler previously founded O3b Networks (O3b stands for “other 3 billion,” a reference to the segment of the world’s population without access to the Internet), and briefly worked at Google, which has several projects underway to bring the Internet to unwired portions of the globe. In addition to bringing Wyler and a few other O3b veterans aboard, Google purchased Titan Aerospace, which is developing solar-powered drones, Skybox Imaging, a startup satellite company, and is working in-house on a project to beam Internet signals from the stratosphere via balloons.

When Wyler left Google, he took with him rights to Ku-band slots that could be used to beam the Internet via satellite, giving him a leg up on Musk’s satellite venture, which recently just made its application for use of parts of the radio spectrum.

In an interview, Wyler said he couldn’t comment on the SpaceX project and whether it was a potential competitor or collaborator. The amount and terms of the investment by Virgin Group and Qualcomm in OneWeb, previously known as WorldVu Satellites Limited, were not disclosed.

OneWeb currently is reviewing proposals from potential partners for a satellite manufacturing facility.

“We’ve gone through the first phase where we’ve received the letters of interest from a number of parties. We expect to down-select in February,” Wyler told Sen.

OneWeb’s constellation of 648 small satellites and ground terminals is expected to cost between $1.5 and $2 billion.