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by Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco
Smartphones to satellites
A common complaint among the elders of Silicon Valley is that today’s young entrepreneurs lack ambition. If the latest start-up idea isn’t yet another photo-sharing app, it’s Uber for pets or Airbnb for power tools. There’s too much focus on making money and not enough on changing the world, they claim. (Innovators do exist)
But a new breed of entrepreneurs doesn’t want to change the world so much as slip its surly bonds. Space is becoming a popular market and Elon Musk (pictured) is leading the charge. The CEO of electric car pioneer Tesla is also head of SpaceX, which became the first private company to fly a spacecraft to the International Space Station last year. Beyond its $1.6bn contract with Nasa, it will carry cargo for other organisations, becoming what investor Steve Jurvetson – the “J” in venerable venture capital firm DFJ – calls the “fibre optics for access to space”. Just as fibre increased capabilities and lowered the costs of accessing the internet, he believes SpaceX will become a platform for all sorts of extraterrestrial endeavours.
In December, the Planet Labs start-up launches 28 Earth-imaging satellites – the largest number launched from one vehicle. The shoebox-sized devices, called “Doves”, contain lightweight cameras that will be used to photograph the world much more frequently than has been possible.
The company is following in the slipstream of Planetary Resources, which hopes to mine asteroids for precious minerals and counts Peter Diamandis of X Prize fame as a co-founder, and Sir Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page as investors. A test flight is scheduled for spring and a crowdfunding campaign raised $1.5m for a public-access space telescope to launch in 2015.
One reason for all this activity is that while the Mars Rover Curiosity, Nasa’s latest robotic vehicle exploring the planet, may contain less computing power than an iPhone 4S, more recent satellites are reaping the benefits of the smartphone industry. The huge volumes being produced has driven down the cost of electronic components, many of which can also be used in satellites.
It feels like it’s only a matter of time before Google, which created its X Lab to pursue “moonshot”, or astronomically ambitious projects, joins the new space race. And other start-ups will surely follow.