Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 143 spacecraft on Sunday morning -- the most satellites sent skyward in a single launch -- to support the company’s new budget-minded SmallSat Rideshare Program.
Don’t let the word “rideshare” throw you off and leave you thinking about booking a weekend trip to sunny Saturn. In the SmallSat way of life, “rideshare” simply means that a group of microsatellites is going along for the ride when SpaceX sends a rocket into space.
In the grand scheme of things, Musk’s idea is to offer a “family of Launch Vehicles that improves launch reliability and increases access to space” in a cost-effective way -- as little as $1 million for the first 485 pounds.
What’s in it for consumers?
Private spaceflight in the Earth’s orbit includes a slew of consumer end-uses. Among them are communications satellites and satellite radio/TV.
Several companies -- like the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic -- got into the game in the 1990s to try to beam more affordable communications and internet services from space, but playing that game was more expensive and less popular than many thought it would be. Many of those early efforts wound up in bankruptcy. Now -- 30 years later -- things have started to change.
“Satellite technology is far cheaper and more advanced. And, thanks primarily to SpaceX, the price of launching payloads into orbit has plummeted,” wrote CNN Business’ Jackie Wattles. Musk seems to be on track to avoid all the potential pitfalls that sank SpaceX’s predecessors: how to economically mass produce satellites, offer an affordable internet service that can match the speeds of cable and wireless — “and avoid Chapter 11 along the way,” Wattles added.
One interesting upshot of the rush to put more satellites in the sky is how it ties into the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s been a higher demand for cloud services since companies began relying more on a teleworking model for their employees over the past year. Companies like SpaceX might be able to offer a more affordable solution to this new normal.
Despite the financial hit that Teledesic took back in the day, Gates is back and working with Musk on this venture. In October, Microsoft announced that it was partnering with Musk’s SpaceX in an effort to expand its cloud-computing platform and hopefully get a leg up on its cloud platform foe, Amazon.com.
A new space race is heating up
The new space race isn’t between the U.S. and Russia anymore. Now, it’s a commercial venture with dozen of private companies in the game. The competitors range from wannabe start-ups backed by Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson to the well-heeled Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the world's most powerful military technology providers and weapons manufacturers.
Musk’s sales team is already doing its job at an impressive pace. In October 2020, SpaceX beat out rivals to score a $149 million deal with the Pentagon to build missile-tracking satellites. If all goes well with that contract, there certainly could be more.
There could also be more in the way of competition. Finally, after a 20-year incubation, Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is reportedly scheduling a debut launch of its New Glenn rocket in 2021. New Glenn will not only deploy a self-contained satellite group as large as SpaceX’s, but it will also carry people and payloads to Earth’s orbit and beyond. Blue Origin is already booking passage on its New Shepard rockets at a price of $200,000 for an 11-minute flight.