The godfather of massive satellite constellations is back with a new business—and a warning.
Greg Wyler, a serial entrepreneur whose companies O3B and OneWeb helped tee up the rush of investment into satellites in Earth orbit, announced this week that he had raised $50 million for a new project, E-Space. Without revealing many details, Wyler described a company that exists in response to a trend he helped kickstart: The startling growth of activity in orbit.
When Wyler started the satellite telecom O3B in 2007, named for the “other three billion” unconnected customers he hoped to plug into the global conversation, there were fewer than 1,000 active satellites in Earth orbit. Today, there are more than 4,500.
Wyler sold O3B to the European satellite giant SES, and in 2014 moved on to pitching an even more ambitious satellite network, featuring thousands of low-flying spacecraft, first to Google and then SpaceX. Differences of opinions with both companies led Wyler to form his own firm, OneWeb. Elon Musk, still enamored by the idea of a massive satellite network, began developing SpaceX’s Starlink network.
Starlink raced ahead, thanks to SpaceX’s fleet of rockets, and now operates nearly 2000 satellites. Wyler left his management role at OneWeb in 2017, but after emerging from bankruptcy in 2020, the company now operates more than 400 satellites. Dozens of other companies and countries are plotting similarly large networks of spacecraft, notably Amazon, Canada’s Telesat, and the governments of the US and China.
More space activity means more risk
The massive new investment in space, driven by the falling cost of getting there on modern rockets, has opened a world of new potential benefits. It’s also created significant concern about potential collisions between spacecraft, and the debris such crashes create. These worries have been exacerbated by more frequent anti-satellite weapons tests as the growing importance of space leads countries including China, Russia, and India to demonstrate their ability to strike in orbit.
With E-Space, Wyler is no longer selling dreams of connectivity. Instead, he talks about resiliency and sustainability, creating satellites to withstand a potential chain reaction of collisions in orbit known as a Kessler event, something he says is “darn close to inevitable.”
“There are no satellites today that will survive a Kessler event,” he says. “There was a day when people thought that the fluids from jet engines would never harm the sky and the Earth because it’s so big…[My background] puts me in position to really understand where all this is going.”
Wyler says the company’s still confidential satellite architecture is cheap enough to launch tens of thousands of redundant spacecraft, but each presents a small profile as it moves through orbit, reducing the chance of collisions. Anton Brevde, a partner at the fund Prime Movers Lab, the only outside investor in E-Space, says the satellite design is the company’s key advantage. The spacecraft is also designed to absorb impact, rather than break into hundreds or thousands of pieces, and in a future iteration, collect debris it encounters. Space engineers Quartz spoke to were skeptical about these ideas but unable to comment without more detail.
What will E-Space actually do?
Tim Farrar, a satellite industry consultant, speculated the specific radio frequencies E-Space plans to use might lend themselves to a network that also uses radio spectrum reserved for terrestrial purposes. That jibes with job postings on E-Space’s website seeking engineers familiar with 5G, the mobile communications protocol.
Wyler says he hopes to offer bespoke constellations to corporate and government customers. Such an architecture might be best applied to Internet of Things applications, with utility companies monitoring their infrastructure or cities tracking activity in the streets.
Satellite communications for IOT remains a nascent field, with space connectivity generally too expensive for mass deployment. One company promising to change that is Swarm, which was acquired by SpaceX last year and abruptly went silent. Given Elon Musk’s past interest in Wyler’s work, we’ll hear a lot more about SpaceX’s IOT plans if E-Space gains commercial traction.
A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business Newsletter.