And Virgin makes 4: Virgin joins worldwide broadband dreamers

15 Jan 2015

Virgin Galactic is following in the footsteps of Google, Facebook and SpaceX to fill our skies and orbit with internet-providing satellites, claiming it will have the largest satellite network ever.

To be known as the LauncherOne programme, Virgin Galactic will be hoping to bounce back from a difficult 2014, following the crash of SpaceShipTwo last November, one of the craft that aimed to herald more affordable space tourism.

The process of placing internet-beaming satellites into Earth’s orbit, Virgin claimed, will be the cheapest means of bringing them just outside our atmosphere, with the first test launch expected in 2016.

However, Virgin will not be the driving force behind the operation, rather it will be a company called OneWeb that announced earlier today it had secured funding from Virgin and its founder Sir Richard Branson, as well as telecommunications company Qualcomm. That funding is estimated to be between US$1.5bn and US$2bn, to bring 648 satellites in total into space.

OneWeb will then maintain their operation in space once Virgin has gotten them there in the first place.

Crowded skies

The deal between OneWeb and Virgin now makes them the fourth player in the internet-providing satellites sphere, after Google’s Project Loon, Facebook’s and SpaceX’s own internet satellites, the latter of which should be the most direct competition to the LauncherOne programme.

There now remains the question of how crowded our upper atmosphere and orbit will be once all these projects are completed and what will happen to them once they have served their purpose?

On Tuesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) said there are more than 12,000 objects being tracked in Earth’s orbit that are considered space junk, much of which is comprised of defunct satellites or components of satellites.

For now however, Branson said Virgin’s operation with OneWeb will leave our obit rather crowded.

“We have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space,” said Branson. “By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”

Satellite network image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic