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SES isn’t waiting on satellite swarms

This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: SES isn’t waiting for the satellite swarms, the NOAA scandal, and the Long March 5 is back.

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The space community descended on Paris this week for World Satellite Business Week. It’s a time for deal-making and news-making. Quartz couldn’t make it (something about the “elaborate” expenses on my last international trip, I’m sure it’s fine) but we did catch up with SES Networks CEO John-Paul Hemingway for an update on how the internet is driving space business.

SES, the Luxembourg satellite giant, earned more than €2 billion last year with its fleet of more than 70 satellites; Hemingway heads its commercial networks business. This week he announced a partnership that will put Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing business on SES satellites, allowing users in remote locations to perform big-computing tasks. Imagine an airline collecting terabytes of data from aircraft in real time, or machine-learning companies downloading massive remote-imaging files from satellites.

This news, an existing partnership with IBM, and work with Amazon Web Services puts the company in the middle of Silicon Valley’s fight over the lucrative business of managing the computing needs of huge organizations.

“We intend to be a de facto way to connect to cloud, whoever is offering it,” Hemingway said. “All of these large internet giants are recognizing that there is going to be a lot of data from space. If you can have a seamless collector for all of that data from space and collect that into a data center owned by one of the cloud internet giants, that’s going to get more people using their particular cloud platform.”

Amazon has already recognized that. It announced a plan to put satellite downlinks at its network centers this summer. Amazon, led by the always space-aware Jeff Bezos, is also planning to launch its own massive satellite constellation—just like OneWeb, SpaceX and a half-dozen other new entrants with plans to use thousands of swarming satellites to compete with SES, Iridium, Intelsat and other established players.

“There will be big change in the industry,” Hemingway said. “I fully expect some levels of consolidation. Rather than building 10 different networks, we’ll build more joined-up networks in the future. No announcements here, [but] we’ve been banging that drum for the past good handful of years and feeling that the industry is following.”

SES also announced that it hired SpaceX to launch seven new satellites in 2021 on two Falcon 9 flights, an improved generation of the O3B satellites that helped convince new entrants that space internet is a smart investment. Hemingway is bullish on the improved capacity promised by the new spacecraft, but was skeptical about the new generation of satellite operators.

“I’m really pleased that we’ve gotten [the next generation of O3B spacecraft] funded, we’ve gone through lots of the regulatory approval to get things done, we’ve gone through the satellite design,” Hemingway said. “There’s lots of talk of of next generation constellations. I was on a panel just today with some of my colleagues on those constellations…a lot of those people have all of those hurdles to go through. They’ve got a long way to prove they can get funding. And then if they are funded,  how do you build a network out? We didn’t hear enough about those business models, that’s still TBD.”

“I don’t think they’ll all get there… [but] the fact that people are recognizing that space will provide a sustainable internet is a good thing.”

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Thanks to everyone who attended our conversation about remote-sensing data from space with Planet’s Dina Kazzaz in San Francisco this week. We hope to have more space-themed Quartz reader get-togethers in the future, so don’t hesitate to send along your ideas for topics and guests.

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Imagery interlude

NASA astronaut Christina Koch photographed Hurricane Dorian from the International Space Station on Sept. 2 while it was over the Bahamas.

Remote-imaging spacecraft have been contributing data to the disaster response efforts in Dorian’s wake, including satellites from Planet, ICEye, and, of course, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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SPACE DEBRIS

NOAA No No. US President Donald Trump’s obsession with proving himself correct about Hurricane Dorian’s potential impact on Alabama has taken a dark turn. At the behest of the White House, secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross reportedly threatened to fire NOAA leaders unless they retracted a statement from the Alabama offices of the National Weather Service that contradicted the president. The office did so, outraging meteorologists. This isn’t a political newsletter, but NOAA is a space agency, and we do think government scientific data should be separate from politics. If you work at NOAA (or anywhere in government), let us know if you see public officials mishandling information.

China’s Big Rocket is Back. More news from World Satellite Business Week—China’s Long March 5 rocket is set to fly again before the end of this year. It will be the first attempt since a 2017 failure. This vehicle is critical to China’s most ambitious space plans, like a new space station and crewed lunar expeditions. That, in turn, is critical to the competitive dynamic that is driving the administration’s plans to fund a US return to the moon in 2024. “We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” US Vice President Mike Pence said in March, but that’s only true if Long March 5 gets off the ground. China needs to go fast enough to worry Congress—but not, in their view, too fast.

SpaceX to launch 24 Starlink missions next year? SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell was in Paris, too, and said that her company could fly as many as 24 rockets dedicated to carrying satellites for its new internet satellite fleet, Starlink. That, alongside commitments to NASA, the US Air Force, and commercial customers would mean outstripping SpaceX’s 21-launch record in 2018 or this year’s ceiling of 18 flights. The biggest factor in SpaceX’s schedule is likely to be when exactly the company’s astronaut-carrying spacecraft gets NASA approval.

Blue Origin hires a chief scientist. Bezos scooped up Cornell astronomer Steve Squyres to be the chief scientist at his space company. Squyres, among other work, led the recently-concluded mission that put the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on the surface of Mars. The expertise of the latest member of Bezos’ Seattle space menagerie will no doubt be useful as Blue plots missions to the moon.

For spy satellite dorks. We learned a lot about the powers of US spy satellites the other week, but what’s the back-story? Space policy wonk Brian Weeden recommends this in-depth article on the history of US spy satellites. I’m still flabbergasted every time I remember that early spy satellites dropped their film in parachute-equipped capsules for American planes to snag from the sky.

Your pal,

Tim

This was issue 14 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your space internet vision boards, spy satellite secrets, tips and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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