Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Apple/Globalstar, fun with the smallest molecule in the universe, and a US Strategic Propellant Reserve in orbit.
The rumors were true: Apple struck a partnership with satellite operator Globalstar to provide emergency connectivity to US users of its latest mobile device, iPhone 14.
Each new phone will allow users out of range of terrestrial connections—Apple’s promo video had hikers stranded on a mountain peak—to link with satellites and send low-bandwidth messages.
Making that happen without altering the size of the iPhone clearly required compromises: The phone must be pointed at the satellite, guided by a nifty user interface, which can then send short text messages to alert emergency services. That will take “less than 15 seconds,” if you have a clear view of the sky. The connection is limited enough that it features a pre-programmed menu of messages, and if the emergency responders in that area can’t receive texts, there will be relay centers staffed with people who can do that for you.
And even if you’re not in an emergency situation, you can use the phone as a beacon to share your location with friends and family through the satellite connection.
“It took years to make this vision a reality,” explained Ashley Williams, an Apple executive who explained the project. That time was spent in the lab, figuring out how make Globalstar’s spectrum play nice with the iPhone, and prepping Globalstar with more than $300 million in payments to buy an entire new satellite constellation.
It’s a big win for Globalstar, which projects that by the end of 2023, the company will make “$185 million to $230 million” in total revenue including the new deal. In 2021, its revenue was $124 million while it lost $112 million. Fees from this service could drag the company back into the black. It further expects another 35% increase in total revenue by 2026, when the new satellites are launched.
Is it as big a win for Apple? Some telecom experts I spoke to about the deal wondered whether all the hard work and spending would be worth a service used only in emergencies. SpaceX’s recent partnership announcement with T-Mobile has promised a more typical mobile phone experience, but it won’t go into operation until the end of 2023, and your mileage may vary on any Elon Musk product announcement.
The secret sauce may just be in the marketing. Apple sold $191 billion (!) worth of iPhones last year. A few hundred million may be worth it to be able to say that the iPhone is the only space-linked mobile device that can keep you in touch with the world in your most desperate moments.
This does have bigger implications for the space industry: In the future, some kind of satellite connectivity will be a requirement for new mobile devices. For now, it will get users through dead zones. But given the investment in new satellite networks, particularly those suited for mobile phone connections, there will be opportunities for Apple and its competitors to try out space-enabled features of all kinds.
For now, though, the proposition is similar to some of the Apple Watch features being debuted during the same event: I suspect the number of people who use that device as a scuba dive computer will be limited, but the cachet for weekend warriors can’t be beat.
After all, the watch industry has been dining out on space-associated timekeepers since the Apollo days.
This is a newly-released image from the guidance camera onboard NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft. It was snapped in late July, and shows the asteroid Didymos from about 20 million miles away. On Sept. 26, DART will arrive at Didymos with plans to slam into a smaller asteroid that orbits it, called Dimorphos. It will be the first test to show if crashing into an asteroid can divert its course, a maneuver that could be used to defend the Earth from dangerously large asteroids.
Hydrogen fuel is finicky. With NASA still fighting leaky plumbing on its Artemis 1 Moon rocket, it’s worth remembering how we got here: With a decision to base the next-generation moon rocket on the guts of the Space Shuttle, ostensibly to control costs and speed development. “We’ve flown them before, but they’ve proven to be problematic and challenging. ...What about it was going to change?” wonders baffled former NASA exec Lori Garver.
The case for a Strategic Propellent Reserve. Speaking of rocket fuel, here’s an argument from United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno and co. that the US government should finance propellant depots in space, filled by mining water ice on the Moon. Such a program could lead to greater capabilities in space and incentive a new lunar economy.
Russia’s invasion cost OneWeb $229 million. The global satellite operator disclosed the cost of ending its agreement to launch satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Albedo raises $48 million. The earth-observation company says its series A will allow it to build a constellation of satellites that can collect imagery at a resolution of 10 cm per pixel, which is sharper than existing competitors. Notably, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate-focused fund backed by Bill Gates, is leading the round.
An elegy for Masten Space Systems. The last of a certain model of private space business—engineers working late in the desert, financing as a secondary concern—has come to an end. Some of its work may live on at Astrobotic, another space firm that has bid for Masten’s assets in bankruptcy.
This was issue 149 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your memories of Masten in the Mojave, predictions for the first Artemis 1 launch date, tips, and informed opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.