Space Commerce

Will Google Build a Satellite Constellation?

By Marc Boucher
June 3, 2014
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Will Google Build a Satellite Constellation?
Boeing redesign of Teledesic 288 active satellites.
Lloyd Wood/SaVi

For months now there have been rumours that Google would be building a constellation of “hundreds” of satellites. To this day we’ve yet to hear from Google which should tell you something.
The purpose of this constellation would be supposedly be to provide broadband satellite internet access to communities globally that don’t have access. Access to high speed Internet with the wealth of information would greatly benefit these communities. This has been a long standing goal of Google’s.

While Google is known for keeping some of its projects super secret, evidence is mounting that Google may be up to something. Rumours began circulating in late January and in early February a senior manager, who would be have to be in the loop, flatly denied the existence of the project.

However two recent reports, one by Space News last week and the other by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) yesterday provide more clues of what Google may be planning to do.

The WSJ says that Google would initially build a constellation of 180 Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites. The constellation would be located between in LEO orbit at 850 km.

The venture is reportedly headed by Greg Wyle who founded O3b Networks and
Brian Holz, O3b’s former chief technology officer. Holz’s LinkedIn profile has him working at Google since April with a position as a Director.

Reportedly WorldVu Satellites Ltd., a company registered in St. Helier, Jersey, has acquired the Ku-band spectrum of defunct SkyBridge who had planned to launch a 360 small satellite constellation.

Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation (SWF) says there are several issues with any proposed constellation of this size. The first is the business model. While Google has deep pockets and has shown a willingness to invest large sums of money with a potential return down the road, the business case still needs to be made here. After all, SkyBridge and Teledesic both failed the business case.

But Weeden says there are two bigger problems. They are spectrum and congestion. The SWF recently held a panel discussion at the National Space Symposium on the topic of Radiofrequency Interference.

Weeden says, “WorldVu has to get a license for the spectrum from a government, and that government will have to get the allocation from the ITU. The news reports are that that filing has taken place.”

“Since these satellites are going to be in low Earth orbit, they won’t be overhead any particular location for more than a few minutes. That’s a plus in that it means they won’t have to fight for the same spectrum as the communication satellites in the geostationary belt, but it also means they will need a lot more satellites to provide continual coverage.”

“That leads to the concern about physical congestion. LEO is where there is the most space debris, and between 600 and 1000 km is the most highly congested region of all. Both the 2007 Chinese antisatellite test and the 2009 collision between the Iridium and Cosmos satellites happened around 850 km. It looks like WorldVu is going to try and orbit just above that mess, which will help. But keeping its satellites out of the way of potential collisions is going to be a big concern for them, and how WorldVu properly disposes of its satellites at the end of their life so they don’t become debris themselves is going to be a big issue for the regulators issuing their licenses.”

With no confirmation Google is working on this project and with several major hurdles to overcome, it’s unclear if Google will actually build a constellation. However if the reports are true, and if a small highly skilled team is in place with deep pockets, and with a goal yet unfulfilled, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying if this project doesn’t go forward.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.