Big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have already taken over Silicon Valley, but the tech giants seem to be eyeing a second area and industry to conquer: outer space.
Microsoft has become the latest Big Tech company to cash in on space satellites, announcing a partnership with its Azure platform and SpaceX earlier this week. More and more of these tech companies are venturing into satellite communications, and with it, bring their money and innovation to the space race.
“The space community is growing rapidly, and innovation is lowering the barriers of access for public and private sector organizations,” said Tom Keane, corporate vice president of Microsoft Azure, in a video announcing the partnership.
However, given the microscope that Big Tech companies are under and their many issues over antitrust, data security, privacy, and the question of if these companies are too big, is it a wise idea to continue to let them into the space industry?
What Has Big Tech Done in Space?
For the most part, Big Tech has focused its space interest in communication satellites to bring more people better broadband internet access. According to a February report from BroadbandNow, an estimated 42 million people don’t have access to broadband internet—and that’s just in the US alone.
Clearly, something needs to be done, and tech companies believe they have the money and technology to do so.
Amazon was the first to stake its place in space when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000. Blue Origin focuses mainly on building reusable launch rockets like its New Shepard suborbital rocket system. Its New Glenn single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle can also carry people and payloads routinely to Earth’s orbit and beyond.
The space company also filed papers with the US government last year seeking approval to launch a network of 3,236 satellites known as Project Kuiper, according to a report from GeekWire. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the project in July and Amazon pledged to invest more than $10 billion into the project that would provide broadband internet access to more areas worldwide.
Microsoft’s recent announcement of its partnership with SpaceX to connect its Azure cloud computing network to the Starlink satellites marks its first foray into the space industry.
“What used to solely be the bastion of governments, the innovation developed by private space companies has democratized access to space, and the use of space to create new scenarios and opportunities to meet the needs of both the public and private sector space has been powering the world for a long time,” Keane said in the announcement.
Microsoft also announced Azure Orbital just a few weeks ago. This initiative directs satellites directly to the cloud by enabling satellite operators to communicate to and control their satellites, process data, and scale operations directly within the cloud. It’s notably similar to Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
“We intend to make Azure the platform and ecosystem of choice for the mission needs of the space community,” Keane added.
Google once had an in-house satellite company named Terra Bella that featured seven high-resolution satellites. However, in 2017, Google sold the company to Planet, Inc., with the deal including Google having access to its archive of imagery, according to The Atlantic. Google uses this satellite imagery to capture faraway images from space for its Google Earth application.
While Google doesn’t have a satellite program anymore, the company does partially own SpaceX. According to Business Insider, Google bought a 7.5% stake in the company for $900 million.
Last December, Bloomberg reported that Apple was in the early stages of creating its own satellite technology that would make it possible to connect Apple devices without needing traditional wireless networks or cell towers. The company has kept quiet about its ambitious satellite tech, but Bloomberg’s initial report said the tech giant had hired executives and engineers from the aerospace and satellite industries.
We reached out to Apple for an update on its satellites and will update this story when we hear back.
Even Facebook has gotten in on the space race, albeit quietly. PointView Tech, a Facebook subsidiary, launched a small satellite known as Athena into space in September to test E-band high-frequency millimeter-wave radio signals that promise much faster data rates.
In its 2018 original FCC filing, PointView Tech said the satellite uses 71-76 GHz for
the downlinks, 81-86 GHz for the uplinks in the E-band spectrum.
Facebook previously told The Daily Mail that satellite infrastructure—like the one in Athena—would bring broadband connections to more rural areas where the internet is either lacking or non-existent.
Implications of Big Tech in Space
Knowing what we know about Big Tech and the current antitrust investigations for all the companies mentioned above, is it a good idea to allow them into the space race? Experts say they might not even get very far because of the US government’s bipartisan distrust of these companies.
“This is a self-inflicted wound by Big Tech,” said Mike Gruntman, a professor of astronautics and aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, in a phone interview. “Both conservatives and the left-wing might go after them in terms of regulations, so if this happens, all this space innovation would be strangled, adding uncertainty to their big plans.”
Gruntman says the satellite projects these companies are working on could abruptly stop if, back on Earth, their antitrust investigations gain steam.
Another aspect Gruntman believes might complicate things for Big Tech and their space goals is the general distrust many people have. With companies like Facebook and Amazon battling issues over its users’ data and whether or not that data can be easily compromised, can we trust them with the task of building a communication system in space?
“There are two components: one is safety, which is practically absent in these Big Tech applications, and there are also national security issues which are probably more serious,” Gruntman said.
The third possible issue is one many astronomers have been concerned about for some time, and that’s the overcrowding of satellites in space. The Starlink satellites SpaceX and Microsoft are working on will end up resulting in more than 40,000 spacecraft added to geostationary orbit, according to Space.com. Amazon’s Project Kuiper promises 3,236 satellites to the already crowded satellite belt, located about 22,236 miles high above Earth.
Gruntman said adding thousands of more satellites means collisions could start increasing and become more frequent within a few years.
The Benefits to Big Tech in Space?
One of the obvious benefits of Big Tech moving into the space sector is money. Big Tech has bucket loads of money, and space is expensive.
“Who else has the money to do the billion-dollar projects in order to do things like building a large satellite network… a small startup is not going to be able to do it,” Doug Mohney, the Editor-in-Chief of Space IT Bridge, told Lifewire over the phone.
Mohney said many companies that try to build a satellite broadband network usually end up going bankrupt. Satellite companies OneWeb, Intelsat SA, and Speedcast International all filed for bankruptcy this year, according to S&P Global, but Big Tech has more than enough money to set aside for its space interests.
With Big Tech entering into the space industry, experts say they’ll actually pave the way to make it easier and more viable for smaller companies to come in and do so.
“If Big Tech invests in advancing space innovations, they will come up with a lot of innovation. Things will become cheaper and less power consuming, and all this will lift up the entire space technology industry,” Gruntman said. “Everybody would benefit from this.”
Others in the industry agree that it is a welcome sign that Big Tech companies are willing to go to space. Dr. Kumar Krishen, a former Senior Researcher and Lead Technologist at NASA, said that aside from bringing innovation and finding new uses for the data, these companies could come up with solutions to problems outside of the need for broadband internet.
“Some of these companies might come up with a lot more solutions to challenging issues such as global security, global positioning, and global monitoring,” Krishen said. “[The companies] are in a much better position to see what people’s future needs are.”
Having worked at NASA for most of his career, Krishen said the space industry was strictly based on government entities, not private companies. However, he said that while NASA isn’t profitable, these companies are.
“All these ambitious things take resources and money, and Big Tech will do what NASA can’t,” Krishen said.
Into the Future
The future of Big Tech in space is still up in the air (so to speak), but experts say it will likely change space as we know it.
“Big tech would certainly change what’s happening in space, but I doubt they would take over the industry as a whole,” Gruntman said.
Adding space to their portfolios of work is just another way for Big Tech to enter into yet another market, since not only is there a need for it, but they have the capacity to do so.
Overall, concerns over Big Tech should remain here on Earth, for now.
“I don’t think Big Tech entering the space market is good or bad—it’s just an evolution of the market,” Mohney said.