Google Satellites Kick Off Second Leg Of Silicon Valley Space Race

Mountain View is getting serious about the Final Frontier

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Google Doodle Hubble
Google Inc. is reportedly planning to buy a piece of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to help put its new Skybox satellites in orbit.

Just days after Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ:GOOGL) $500 million acquisition of satellite maker Skybox Imaging, the search behemoth is reportedly making deals to send its new satellites into space. It's the latest move in the rapidly developing "space race" in Silicon Valley.

Google is now in advanced talks to take a small stake in Virgin Galactic, according to a report Thursday from Sky News. Richard Branson’s private space exploration business plans to start offering commercial flights into space later this year, and the Skybox satellites could hitch a ride. 

Mountain View, California-based Skybox manufactures small satellites capable of taking high-resolution images of the earth’s surface, but the small company does not have the ability to launch its own satellites. Instead, they "tag along on rockets launched for other reasons,” according to a Bloomberg report. Skybox currently has only one satellite in orbit, and it has fallen behind on its schedule to launch more. 

Google said in a statement that the acquisition will “help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery. Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief.”

Skybox is the latest in a series of aerospace-related buys for Google.  The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the tech titan had acquired staff from O3b Networks Ltd., an Internet-broadcasting satellite maker, to help launch “180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the Earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites” and are capable of expanding Internet access worldwide.

In April, Google also acquired Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of solar-powered, high-altitude drones that send Internet signals to the surface, one month after Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) announced its acquisition of drone-maker Ascenta. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook Connectivity Lab would use Ascenta’s solar-powered drones, along with a series of satellites that communicate by laser, in a bid to expand Internet access.

By expanding Internet access to more users, Google hopes to improve its advertising revenues on the ground for its main search business. Google is investing in drone and satellite technology while moving forward with its Project Loon “moonshot,” a plan to improve Internet access in remote areas with a series of networked hot-air balloons. 

According to a source with information on the matter, Google is aiming to use a combination of the technologies to increase Internet adoption.

Whereas Skybox will have a “constellation” of small satellites, Titan Aerospace’s drones will use solar power to stay in place “regardless of the winds.” Project Loon’s free-floating balloons, however, are capable of flying around the earth with wind currents, and over time, “the teams may be able to learn a lot from each other,” they said.

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