A Race to Mars Could Bring Satellite Internet Straight to Earth

Elon Musk’s SpaceX races OneWeb to build a global online presence with smaller, superlight satellites. One result: a scrum of investors.


You just can’t keep Matt Damon from going to space. Last year’s movie Interstellar featured a surprise Damon cameo that drew loud applause during screenings. This year Damon stars in The Martian, in which he’s an astronaut sent to Mars, left for dead after an emergency evacuation, unable to contact his team and without adequate food to last him until its earliest return, four years hence. In a trailer that’s already garnered 15 million YouTube views, he explains his predicament, then offers a grimly cheerful solution: He’ll just have to “science the shit out of this.”

Or, maybe the filmmakers should just cue Elon Musk. These days, it can seem as if most of our science problems have attracted Musk’s attention, especially if space or Mars is involved. (One almost dreams of a movie in which Damon plays Musk.) Musk’s Hawthorne, California–based rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp., otherwise known as SpaceX, already intends to establish an experimental colony on Mars and to build vehicles to get folks and stuff there. In the latter category, they’ve managed to become the first private company to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. More recently, SpaceX has been researching satellite telecommunications, the kind of thing that a lonely guy on Mars could use to call for a ride home or that a colony of human Martians could employ to live a life as connected as anyone Earthside. It’s an obvious development. Of course they’d need to phone home.

Reports from last September had Musk working with former Google employee Greg Wyler to create superlight satellites; recently, Wyler’s OneWeb (formerly WorldVu Satellites) and Musk’s SpaceX — now separate companies, in competition — were each reported to have accepted large investments from prominent (and separate) backers. The Virgin Group and Qualcomm have thrown their support behind OneWeb; Google and Fidelity Investments have given a combined $1 billion to SpaceX.

Investors interested in tech might take notice, especially because the promise of satellite Internet isn’t just for interplanetary use. We already use it here on Earth, especially in rural areas without access to dial-up or cable, though it has never been fast enough to seriously compete with the latter. Like many of Musk’s existing projects, SpaceX’s work with satellite Internet isn’t, at least conceptually, much of a disruption at all. It’s an idea with a history, and one whose future might be more promising for that very reason. There should also be plenty of interesting opportunities for investors should satellite Internet flourish in the wake of the OneWeb and SpaceX pushes.

Problems with satellite Internet have long been identified. First among them is a very familiar one: latency. The greater the distance, the slower communications may be. A user sends a request from an at-home satellite dish up to a satellite in geostationary orbit — that is, an orbit that remains in a fixed position above Earth. The request is sent from the satellite back down to an Internet provider’s broadcast hub, where the requested information is located, then beamed back through that same three-step chain.

SpaceX has filed with the Federal Communications Commission for permission to begin testing so-called microsatellites, launched with its Falcon 9 rockets, that will solve the latency problem by staying in low Earth orbit, a little less than a hundred miles from Earth and slightly lower than existing telecom satellites. Musk apparently envisions a net of thousands of microsatellites, double in number and half the size of most of what’s up there now. More and lower satellites mean less distance between any point on Earth and the nearest satellite, and simple enough to seem as if it might work. For its part, OneWeb plans a global net of 700 satellites, launched in partnership with French company Arianespace — not, as originally announced, Virgin Galactic — by about 2018.


In the past two years, Facebook and Google both bowed out of the race to bring the Internet to the two thirds of the world without online access after widely publicized announcements of their efforts. Google’s attempt to wire whole cities with Google Fiber also seems to be fading. (Both companies could have benefitted massively from success in this field, since the more users they have, the more ad dollars they make.) That might suggest that, beyond SpaceX and OneWeb, the future of Internet in the stars will belong to start-ups — smaller ones, even, than Musk’s and Wyler’s concerns.

Who or what will bear watching? Companies working in telecommunications in the developing world might begin to roll out satellite Internet-related products that are far more affordable and reliable than standard satellite phones. Companies that develop microsatellite hardware and software — SpaceX’s and OneWeb’s contractors — will also become increasingly significant, though these names won’t be known for certain at least until after the completion of the first microsatellite trials. (Potential participants include the British Columbia–based MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates, which owns Palo Alto, California–based manufacturer SSL; Airbus Defence and Space, a Toulouse, France–based division of the aerospace consortium Airbus Group; and Thales Alenia Space, a Cannes, France–based company owned by the French Thales Group and Italian company Finmeccanica.)

In the more distant future, we might see the disappearance of the mobile phone. In some cases, countries without cell phones — there are some, like Somalia, that might never adopt them, going straight to affordable satellite telecommunications technology the way countries like Kenya never fully relied on telephone lines and went straight to mobile. Satellite means no wires required, no towers, only dishes, small, prefabricated and requiring no power grid (if they happen to be connected to a battery and a solar array like those designed by Musk’s other endeavors, Tesla and SpaceX).

One shouldn’t forget, however, that if OneWeb conquers SpaceX in the race for satellite Internet, the win will be Qualcomm’s as well, which might well own the intellectual property for the first viable personal satellite mobile phone for American consumers. Worth noting, too, is that, like Musk’s other projects, his telecom system is designed for use in extreme conditions, when a conventional grid might be vulnerable or nonexistent, not just for developing countries but also in coastal cities under changing climate conditions. Without wanting to succumb to apocalyptic thinking, these kinds of technologies should bear watching for those who want to support the innovations that will see us through climate change.

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists completed an immersive simulation of conditions on Mars by living in a dome on volcanic Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Would it be possible to live there? If and when we ever establish a Mars colony, and whether Matt Damon ever visits, its inhabitants will need more reliable communication than currently on offer. The next inhabited planet in the universe might be using Musk’s — or Wyler’s — technology, connected to Earth by a web of satellites larger than Earth itself and lighter, more efficient than any we’ve yet known, and the effects for our communication systems down here should be equally profound.