Mark Zuckerberg is again going head to head against his fellow technology tycoon and rival Elon Musk in a new space race to bring the internet to the most far-flung corners of the world.

Documents have revealed Facebook plans to launch an internet satellite into low-Earth orbit by early next year. The project, named Athena, is designed to "efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world". It is tipped to stream data 10 times faster than Musk's push to develop an alternative system. In a statement to Wired magazine, Facebook confirmed the project's existence. "While we have nothing to share about specific projects at this time, we believe satellite technology will be an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure, making it possible to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent," a spokesperson said.

Musk's firm has already launched the first of its 12,000 "Starlink" satellites designed to provide low-cost internet service from Earth's orbit and provide an alternative to fibre-optic cables.

He claims his Starlink project will provide high-speed, cable-like internet using a network of satellites rather than a single geostationary system. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has revealed few details about his project.


The Facebook founder hasn't had much success with similar projects. In 2017, his US$95m ($140m) satellite erupted into flames when the SpaceX rocket due to carry it into orbit exploded on the launch pad. He also recently shut down his in-house internet drone project, Aquila, saying it was not financially viable to compete with aerospace giants developing rival technology.

Zuckerberg now hopes to send up the small, low-Earth orbit satellite system that won't hit the tech company's bottom line should something go amiss. France's aerospace giant Arianespace will send the initial Facebook satellite to low-Earth orbit next year. It will remain for two years to determine whether it can successfully deliver what the company is aiming for. In 2021, it will be shut off and "de-orbited".

But there's another player to consider.

Richard Branson's Virgin entered the space race after landing a deal to launch communication satellites with OneWeb in 2015. Google also appears to be making strides in the area with its so-called Project Loon which it has been working on for seven years under its secretive X research division.