Amazon, has formally entered the competition to develop extensive satellite constellations capable of providing global internet coverage. This strategic move now places the tech giant in direct rivalry with SpaceX and its Starlink system.
The inaugural pair of prototype satellites for Amazon’s network known as Project Kuiper, were successfully launched via a United Launch Alliance rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:06 p.m. ET on Friday.
“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” said Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, in a statement. “This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds.”
United Launch Alliance terminated the live broadcast of the launch once the rocket’s first stage, responsible for the initial thrust during liftoff, completed its engine firing. The company did, however, confirm the success of the mission and stated in a press release that it had delivered the satellites with precision. Amazon had not immediately verified communication with the satellites.
If this mission proves successful, it could pave the way for Amazon to deploy hundreds more satellites into orbit. Ultimately, this endeavor aims to establish a network comprising over 3,200 satellites that will collaborate to provide internet connectivity to the Earth’s surface.
This business model mirrors that of Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite constellation, which has experienced rapid growth since 2019. Presently, SpaceX has over 4,500 operational Starlink satellites in orbit and offers commercial and residential internet services across most of the Americas, Europe, and Australia.
Space-Based Internet Evolution
The space industry is currently undergoing a transformative phase. Not too long ago, most space-based telecommunications services relied on large, costly satellites positioned in geosynchronous orbits, which are located thousands of miles away from Earth. The drawback of this approach to space-based internet was the significant distance of the satellites, resulting in frustrating delays.
Now, companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon are striving to bring internet services closer to home.
Even before these companies embarked on their ventures, the satellite industry had aspirations of providing high-speed space-based internet directly to consumers. In the 1990s, there were several such initiatives, some of which ended in bankruptcy or led corporate owners to adjust their plans due to expenses outweighing the benefits.
The affordability of satellites and reduced launch costs have paved the way for the emergence of ‘megaconstellations’ in low-Earth orbit (LEO), situated at altitudes of less than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.
Unlike geostationary orbits, where satellites remain fixed over a specific area of Earth, providing uninterrupted service to a designated region, LEO satellites rapidly orbit the planet. This is why thousands of satellites are needed to collaborate in order to achieve global internet coverage through this approach.
The prospect of widespread, high-speed internet access holds the potential to be revolutionary. In 2021, nearly 3 billion people worldwide still lacked basic internet connectivity, as reported by the United Nations. This was largely due to the fact that more conventional forms of internet service, such as underground fiber optic cables, had not yet extended to certain underserved areas of the world.
SpaceX has established a significant lead in expanding its services, and its endeavors have, at times, thrust the company into international political disputes.
Notably, in late 2022 and early 2023, the company faced substantial criticism for initially denying Ukrainian troops, engaged in the conflict with Russia, access to Starlink services, which had played a crucial role in Ukraine’s military operations. (Subsequently, the company reversed its decision, and Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, addressed the Ukraine controversy in a recent book.)
There is a possibility that Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation could become entangled in similar global discussions and confront comparable geopolitical pressures should the network achieve success.
“I’m also interested in whether Amazon intends to offer dual-use capabilities, with government and defense sectors as major clients. This could potentially subject Kuiper to the same kind of scrutiny as Starlink in the context of Ukraine,” commented Gregory Falco, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University.
Controversies Surrounding Megaconstellations
Despite the promises of a global internet access revolution, the deployment of extensive satellite megaconstellations required for worldwide internet coverage has generated controversy.
Presently, low-Earth orbit is already cluttered with thousands of pieces of space debris. With an increase in the number of objects in space, the risk of catastrophic collisions rises, exacerbating this issue.
The Federal Communications Commission, responsible for authorizing space-based telecommunications services, has recently intensified its efforts to address the problem of space debris.
Meanwhile, the satellite industry has largely committed to adhering to recommended best practices, including the commitment to deorbit satellites at the end of their missions.
In a May blog post, Amazon previously outlined its sustainability plans, which encompass ensuring that its satellites possess the capability to maneuver while in orbit.
Amazon has also committed to safely deorbit the initial two test satellites once their missions conclude.
Furthermore, astronomers have consistently voiced apprehensions regarding the repercussions of having numerous satellites in low-Earth orbit, expressing concerns that these artificial objects may encroach upon and distort telescope observations, thereby complicating ongoing research.
SpaceX has similarly made comparable commitments.
The Business of Space-Based Internet Services
The competition between Project Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink is still unfolding, and the ultimate success of Project Kuiper remains uncertain. Despite Starlink’s achievement in amassing over 1 million customers, recent documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggest that SpaceX’s megaconstellation may not have lived up to earlier projections.
In terms of consumer pricing, individuals can acquire a Starlink user terminal for their homes at approximately $600, in addition to the monthly service fees.
Amazon has expressed its ambition to manufacture Project Kuiper terminals at a target price of around $400 per device, although the company has not yet commenced demonstrations or sales of these terminals. Furthermore, Amazon has not disclosed the pricing structure for monthly Kuiper services.
SpaceX has had a notable advantage by utilizing its own Falcon 9 rockets to launch batches of Starlink satellites into orbit.
In contrast, Amazon lacks its own rocket capabilities. While Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, is developing a rocket capable of reaching orbit, the project is currently several years behind schedule.
At present, Kuiper satellites are being launched using rockets manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a close collaborator of Blue Origin. In addition to ULA and Blue Origin, Amazon has also secured a Project Kuiper launch contract with the European launch service provider, Arianespace.
On August 28, The Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, which holds an ownership stake in Amazon, initiated a lawsuit against the company regarding the launch contracts. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon executives consciously and intentionally breached their fundamental fiduciary responsibilities, in part by not opting to launch Project Kuiper satellites using SpaceX rockets, which the lawsuit contends are among the most cost-effective launch options.
An Amazon spokesperson responded, stating, “The claims in this lawsuit are entirely baseless, and we anticipate demonstrating this through the legal proceedings.”
Assuming all goes according to plan, Amazon has announced its intention to launch its first production satellites in early 2024 and commence beta testing for initial customers by the end of 2024, as outlined in a news release.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper enters the competitive field of satellite megaconstellations for global internet coverage, challenging SpaceX’s Starlink. The success of Kuiper remains uncertain, with Amazon aiming for affordability and sustainability. Both ventures face concerns over space debris and telescope interference. Amazon is in a legal dispute over launch contracts. Despite challenges, the quest for global internet access continues, potentially revolutionizing connectivity worldwide.