Andrey Armyagov - Fotolia

SpaceX rocket explosion is setback for Facebook internet project

Facebook’s internet project has lost a satellite it was planning to use to provide broadband coverage to sub-Saharan Africa

The explosion of a SpaceX rocket as it was being tested ahead of launch is a setback for Facebook’s internet.org project to connect as many parts of the world to the internet as possible.

The reusable Falcon-9 rocket was carrying a communications satellite that Facebook was intending to use to provide broadband internet coverage to huge parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the BBC reports.

Facebook had partnered French satellite firm Eutelsat to lease the broadband capability of the satellite for five years at a reported cost of £72m a year.

The loss of the Israeli-built Amos-6 satellite, owned by Spacecom and valued at more than £150m, has been described as a major blow to the space industry and SpaceX’s ambitions to provide a relatively cheap means of space travel with reusable rockets.

SpaceX attributed the explosion to an anomaly around the upper-stage oxygen tanks that occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle.

The loss of the satellite is likely to cause some delays to internet.org’s roll-out programme, but will not affect its ultimate goal, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Tech industry analysts expect Facebook to work on getting another satellite up and running as soon as possible, the paper said.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is visiting several African countries, said he was “deeply disappointed” to hear of the destruction of the satellite, which would have provided connectivity to many people across Africa.

“Fortunately, we have developed other technologies, like Aquila, that will connect people as well,” he wrote in a blog post. “We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided.”

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Aquila is a UK-developed, solar-powered drone that is designed to fly at high altitude in a circle with a radius of 1.8 miles and provide internet coverage for an area with a radius of 30 miles.

The drones will stay in contact with each other and the ground using lasers and will remain airborne for months at a time.

In July 2016, Facebook announced it had completed the first test flight in a year-long programme for its Aquila drone.

Internet.org aims to benefit more than four billion people who are not yet online, and has already connected more than one billion people by working with mobile operators.

Aquila will help reach the 10% of the world’s population who are living in remote locations where it is not fesible to use mobile and satellite technologies.

Zuckerberg has acknowledged that Facebook will benefit in the long run if more people gain internet access, but says the project is based on the conviction that internet service can bring economic and social benefits to developing nations.

In parallel with work by the Facebook-led Internet.org, Google is experimenting with high-altitude balloons as well as drones and satellites, and Microsoft has funded a project to transmit internet signals over unused TV frequencies.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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Facebook has the resources and focus to bounce back quickly. After all, we're only talking about one lost satellite, albeit an expensive one. SpaceX OTOH faces a far more serious setback from this explosion and a major loss in time and money and prestige. They must be facing serious PR repairs with NASA and some astronaut reluctance to board their next rocket. I wonder who underwrites their insurance...?
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