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A space race between Facebook and Google

Earth as seen by Apollo 17
Earth as seen by Apollo 17
NASA

A March 30, 2014 post on the Citizens in Space blog makes the suggestion of a “space race” between Google and Facebook. It’s not a case of two internet giants using space cash to launch low cost space exploration, though Google is sponsoring an x prize competition to land private spacecraft on the lunar surface. The race is to see which company will connect the entire world to the Internet.

Noting stories that Google is contemplating putting up a fleet of 1,600 communication satellites, the blog suggests that Facebook has a different approach.

“Facebook plans to rely heavily on drones (unmanned air vehicles or UAVs) operating at an altitude around 65,000 feet — high enough to avoid weather and traffic conflicts, but low enough to maximize signal strength. At that altitude, a single drone could cover a medium-sized city. Drones would be powered by solar panels during the day and batteries at night. Facebook is already building the first prototype. The effort will be staffed by key employees from Ascenta, a UK-based drone developer recently acquired by Facebook.

“Nevertheless, Facebook believes there will still be places where it is uneconomical or impractical to deploy drones to provide internet connectivity. In these lower-density areas, satellites may provide a cheaper alternative.

“Facebook is considering both geosynchronous (GEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications satellites.”

Facebook is thinking of using a technology called FSO (free space optical) that uses light to transmit data in free space rather than through a fiber optic cable. The technology has greater transmission speeds but it harder to use on a satellite because of movement. FSO is unregulated, though, which would save time and money.

Launch costs are a real consideration when contemplating putting up a large number of satellites. On the other hand such a large market might spark competition among launch providers and lower costs.

Currently 70 percent of the Earth is still not connected to the Internet, potentially billions of customers for either company.