Looking Skyward: Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Boeing have teamed up to compete for the XS-1 space plane program. (David Ryde/ / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Some of the biggest names and deepest pockets in Silicon Valley are looking to space as their next big investment opportunity, and while the targets of their investment are primarily commercial, the Pentagon’s in-house tech think tank is also drawing these entrepreneurs into its own orbit in an ambitious new space launch project.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson are just two of the investors competing to duke it out to win the right to develop a reusable, relatively inexpensive “space plane” capable of carrying clusters of small satellites weighing as little as 5 to 10 pounds into space. Meanwhile, Google is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on several projects that would launch dozens of these small, inexpensive communications satellites into space.
All of these ventures come as a cost-conscious Pentagon is searching for more bandwidth to feed its increasingly networked ground, sea and air assets and a growing number of quick reaction and special operations units as they deploy in ever smaller packages in remote and austere environments, making secure and reliable communications a lifesaving necessity.
On July 15, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that it had awarded development contracts for the first phase of its XS-1 space plane program to three teams: the Boeing and Bezos-backed Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, which has teamed up with Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The goal is to build a system capable of launching at least 10 times a year from a single platform, each time carrying payloads of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds for less than $5 million per flight.
While Bezos and Branson are making forays into space, in June Internet behemoth Google announced that it had inked an agreement to purchase Silicon Valley satellite maker Skybox Imaging for $500 million in order to improve its Google Maps service.
“Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in,” the company said in a statement.
But that kind of investment can have other uses, particularly since Skybox’s small, relatively inexpensive satellites offer ground-level resolution down to 1 meter.
The company also said in June that it was kicking off a $1 billion project with another small satellite maker, Ob3 Networks — which Google has helped to fund — to launch a fleet of about 180 small satellites into low-Earth orbit that would be capable to spreading Internet access to unwired corners of the globe.
Google has also been reported to be backing a venture called L5/WorldVu that is in the early stages of developing a network of 360 low-Earth orbiting satellites that would become operational in 2019 or 2020.
While Google’s ventures are aimed at commercial markets, a penny-pinching Pentagon is also likely taking notice.
“There hasn’t been too much talk of those ventures getting involved in the government quite yet, but just as Iridium started out as purely commercial venture, it’s something that really has the potential for military uses,” said Bill Ostrove, space industry market analyst at Forecast International.
These recent developments in small space platforms and communications satellites also come at a critical time for Washington’s space operations.
For more than a decade the US has relied on Russian-built RD-180 engines to boost Atlas V rockets into space carrying almost all large American satellites. But with increasing tensions with Moscow over Ukraine and the subsequent ramping up of American sanctions on Russia, there have been rumblings of that relationship being on the rocks.
“If you consider space a national security priority, then you absolutely have to consider assured access to space a national security priority,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told a US Senate panel on July 16. “Given that we have a vulnerability here, it’s time to close that hole,” he said.
Shelton added that if Russia decided to refuse to sell RD-180 engines to the United States, missions would likely be delayed anywhere from 12 to 48 months, putting some of the Air Force’s satellite constellations in a risky position as they age without replacement.
“It is dire if that should happen,” he warned.
In June, the House of Representatives passed a defense bill that included $220 million in fiscal 2015 to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine, which was much higher than the White House’s modest $40 million request. The White House opposes the funding, responding that building a new engine and rocket system would cost $4.5 billion and eight years to develop from scratch. ■