After reaffirming his commitment to space tourism following Virgin Galactic's deadly crash in October, slightly absurd rocket enthusiast Richard Branson is tossing a chunk of his billions at a new project: former Google Satellite executive Greg Wyler's satellite-internet company OneWeb.
It was initially speculated that SpaceX's chief executive Elon Musk would be the one to partner with OneWeb, but Branson, along with the telecommunications company Qualcomm, has beat him to it.
OneWeb, previously called WorldVu, aims to bring internet access to those without it, including third world countries, rural areas in developed countries like the US, and airlines. The service will be powered by a constellation of 648 satellites.
The service will be powered by a constellation of 648 satellites
OneWeb will launch the 250-pound satellites with the help of Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne, a rocket created to launch cargo into orbit. Branson told CNBC, "We believe this is a very efficient way of getting satellites into space. It's much more efficient than the big rockets of the past. We can literally take off every three or four hours."
At an altitude of around 1,200 kilometers (745 miles), the satellites should reach a throughput capacity of 8 gigabits per second. If the initial launch is successful, Branson said the company could launch up to 2,400 satellites. In a post on the Virgin website, Branson said, "By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky."
Currently based in Britain's Channel Islands, OneWeb is in the process of creating small user terminals which will provide internet access at a rate of 50 megabits per second. Price estimates for the construction of the initial constellation hover around $2 billion.
The launch could happen as early as 2017
This isn't the first attempt we've seen at space-based internet. Last year, Facebook and its nonprofit organization Internet.org shared plans of Boeing-sized, solar-powered internet connectivity drones, then Google nabbed commercial drone company Titan Aerospace out from under Facebook's fingers to work with its fleet of giant internet-beaming balloons, Project Loon. Some airlines, like United, are already using satellite-powered internet.
Virgin Galactic could be a good launchpad for satellite-internet, not least because Branson has a lot of money and excitement for the project, coupled with a toe already in the final frontier. The launch could happen as early as 2017.