Google’s decision, along with Fidelity Investments, to invest $1 billion in entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) venture should help flesh out its ongoing effort to bring Internet access to poorly connected parts of the world.
SpaceX on Jan. 20 described the investment as a financing round that gives Google and Fidelity a combined 10 percent share in the company. The new investors join a team of other high-powered firms, including Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Investors Founders Fund and Valor Equity Partners.
The new funding will support SpaceX’s continuing mission of one day delivering a spacecraft capable of going to Mars. It will help with “continued innovation in space transport, reusability and satellite manufacturing,” the company noted in a statement.
Google said the investment will help SpaceX build new launch capabilities. “Space-based applications, like imaging satellites, can help people more easily access important information,” a spokesman said in a statement. “So we’re excited to support SpaceX’s growth as it develops new launch technologies.”
Google’s latest investment might well have been spurred by a shared enthusiasm for SpaceX’s grand vision of a Mars voyage funded entirely through private investors. But the money that Google has invested in the rocketry company will also help its ongoing effort to build Internet delivery capabilities in areas of the world that do not currently have Internet access.
Google plans to launch hundreds of microsatellites into low Earth orbit, at an estimated cost of $1 billion, to enable this vision in the next few years. The first wave of deployments will include 160 communication microsatellites. If all goes well with the initial fleet, Google will launch hundreds more. SpaceX’s reusable rockets could help lower Google’s cost of launching these satellites and putting them into orbit.
Besides the microsatellite project, Google has a project under way that seeks to enable its Internet connectivity goals via the use of high-altitude balloons. In that venture, dubbed Project Loon, Google plans to deploy an uninterrupted ring of helium balloons flying at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet that will be used to bounce signals from base stations on the ground to homes and offices in remote areas. Google has ramped up its balloon-launching capabilities in recent months and said it now has the ability to float up to 20 Project Loon balloons per day, each one capable of staying afloat for at least 100 days.
Google’s plans for global Internet-enablement do not end there. In June 2014, Google acquired satellite vendor Skybox Imaging for $500 million with the same goal in sight. At that time, company officials said the acquisition would help it keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery. Over time, though, Skybox’s satellite technology would also help the company improve Internet access and disaster-relief capabilities, the company noted at that time.
Google’s huge cash reserves and market capitalization have allowed the company to make such investments without batting an eyelid. In fact, just a couple of months before the Skybox purchase, Google also acquired Titan Aerospace, a drone maker whose technology the company hopes to use to further its plans of bringing Internet access to the unconnected billions.
Other Internet firms have similarly ambitious goals. Social media giant Facebook’s Connectivity Lab initiative seeks to do the same thing with help from a slew of aviation and aerospace experts from organizations like NASA, Boeing, Honeywell and Harris Corp.