SpaceX is reeling after an early-morning explosion took out its rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. The incident is a major setback for chief executive Elon Musk. But odds are the tragic news is disappointing another U.S. tech billionaire, too.
You see, the rocket destroyed Thursday was bearing a satellite that Facebook intended to use to beam Internet access to developing nations. When the rocket went up in smoke, so did the cargo inside, according to SpaceX.
"SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today's static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload,” the company said in a statement. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries."
Last year, Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said he was eager to use the AMOS-6 satellite to deliver broadband connectivity to hard-to-reach parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Facebook has some 84 million users in the region.
"To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies," he wrote in a Facebook post in October.
Zuckerberg has spoken proudly of the initiative to connect the world's next billion people to the Web. On Monday, Zuckerberg met with Pope Francis and presented him with a model of the Aquila drone that Facebook expects to help beam Internet down to the Earth. The drones are meant to work together with Facebook's satellite plans by essentially creating a single wireless network in the atmosphere. The company has also developed terrestrial equipment that can either act as standalone mobile data hotspots or as a hub for a local data network.
"As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent," Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. "Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well."
It's unclear what Facebook plans to do next to compensate for the loss of the AMOS-6 satellite, whose 18 Gbps connections it planned to lease in partnership with Eutelsat for $95 million across five years.
The company declined to comment on the explosion.