Amazon is set to launch its first ever satellites on 6 October, as the company kicks off plans for a space internet service known as Project Kuiper that it hopes will rival SpaceX’s Starlink.
A pair of satellites called KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 are scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 7pm BST on 6 October. They are due to be placed in an orbit 500 kilometres above Earth’s surface, to test out key components of the Kuiper mega constellation, which is planned to consist of 3200 satellites.
“It’s really important to test the satellites before they can launch the rest of the constellation,” says Tim Farrar, a satellite communications consultant in the UK. “This is a big step forward that we’ve been waiting a long time for.”
Project Kuiper satellites are designed to connect to remote terminals on Earth, providing internet access in remote or secluded locations that otherwise lack connectivity.
Such space internet has been the target of several companies in recent years, most notably SpaceX in the US and OneWeb in the UK. The former has already launched about 5000 satellites and boasts some 2 million users, while OneWeb has nearly 650 satellites in orbit. Amazon is playing catch-up, says Farrar. “It’s going to be very challenging because they are four or five years behind SpaceX at least,” he says.
Amazon has committed to spending $10 billion on Kuiper. Last year, it essentially bought up all the spare launch capacity in the world on every available non-SpaceX rocket – seemingly in an attempt to avoid giving money to its major competitor.
However, the development of many of the rockets Amazon intends to use, such as ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, has been delayed. That sparked ire from some of Amazon’s shareholders, who filed a lawsuit in August alleging a personal rivalry between Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk had seen Amazon overlook SpaceX’s Falcon rockets. Amazon dismissed the claims as “completely without merit”.
The delay has seen the company turn to the Atlas V rocket to launch its two prototype satellites, despite the rocket being much larger than required. While not much is known about each KuiperSat, they are estimated to each be more than 500 kilograms in mass, which is too large for most small rockets in operation today, but undersized compared with the Atlas V’s massive lifting capacity of 7000 kilograms – a bit like sending small items in large cardboard boxes, as Amazon’s retail arm occasionally does.
“There isn’t really much on the table that’s at an intermediate rocket level,” says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. “Amazon really want to get these up now.”
Amazon says it will begin production of its full Kuiper satellites later this year and start launching them in the first half of next year, with an early Kuiper service due to roll out in the second half of 2024. Eventually, it plans to offer internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, comparable to fibre-optic broadband.
For this launch, each prototype satellite will carry instruments to test how users on the ground might connect to Kuiper. One satellite will also test out a method to reduce the brightness of the satellite in the night sky, in order to prevent the future Kuiper mega constellation from being a hazard to astronomers, but Amazon hasn’t revealed exactly how this will work.
Chris Johnson, space law adviser at the Secure World Foundation in the US, says there are still issues to resolve regarding both the impact of mega constellations on astronomy and managing such large numbers of satellites in orbit to avoid collisions. “Global constellations are here now and the train has left the station,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean the game is up. These things can still be regulated.”