More than 60 years ago, Robert H. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and their peers within the science fiction community wrote dazzling tales about spaceflight and interplanetary rocket travel. It was as if they expected rockets to be sold to consumers like RVs on a used car lot, listed at price points that made them available to middle class families. In the decades since, we have orbited the earth, walked on the moon, landed a probe on a comet and sent Voyager into the interstellar expanse, but all of that occurred on the government dime. Space has remained a big budget prospect, available to no one but the greatest of the sovereign states. Yet the recent appearance of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and a score of other commercial aerospace start-ups has lent life the idea that space may become accessible to private companies, and perhaps from there, private citizens. With its recent acquisition of Skybox Imaging, Google may finally be joining these ambitious commercial space racers.
Google, the modern generation’s own Thomas Edison, can hardly be said to be ignoring these opportunities, as the Google Lunar XPrize and Google Earth (and its celestial sister Google Sky) draw all eyes to the black behind the wild blue yonder. Yet, the critical observer will note that both of the above initiatives, and indeed all of Google’s super-atmospheric ambitions, seem to cast Google as the consumer of space technology and not the creator of it. Google purchased, and continues to purchase, all of its satellite imagery from third-party companies, and Google certainly does not seem to be building any rockets of its own.
All of that may have changed with Google’s recent $500 million purchase of the 5-year-old Palo Alto start-up, Skybox Imaging, if you consider a company with $91 million in venture capital money in its pockets to be a “start-up.” Before being acquired by technology giant Google, Skybox was already shaking up the 21st century space race. Skybox made a splash a few years ago by challenging the norm of ultra-expensive, ultra-custom engineered satellites, opting instead to create cheaper micro-satellites using as many off-the-shelf components as possible. Skybox’s innovative approach to imaging also made waves as it found a trick that allowed it to use standard array image sensors to bypass much of the expense and technical drawbacks of more common “push broom” style satellite imaging sensors.
All of that innovation and potential was bound to attract some wealthy buyer’s attention, but the fact that it attracted Google’s attention specifically must not pass without comment. Google now owns a satellite imaging company, and one that was founded on the idea that imaging was just the beginning. Of course Google will use Skybox’s technology to streamline and expand its satellite image capabilities and offerings, but other applications seem inevitable.
Skybox has made a practice of pushing the bounds of space technology, and Google has made a practice of pushing the bounds of consumer technology. The marriage between the two companies seems to fore-sage a new, if distant, age of consumer space technology. The big tech companies have been racing to space for a while, but now that Google has dipped a toe in the water, the whole thing is starting to feel very real. A cynic might make a great deal of the vast gulf between a private corporation manufacturing micro-satellites for its own use and the distant possibility of a private citizen owning a satellite of his or her own. A cynic may see no connection at all between either of the above and the incredible dream of personal spaceflight, but a dreamer might see a first and hopeful step hidden in the headlines.
By Evan Prieskop