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Amazon has officially joined the race to build massive constellations of satellites that can blanket the world with Internet connectivity — a move that puts the tech company in direct competition with SpaceX and its Starlink system.
The first of two satellite prototypes for the Amazon network, called Project Kuiper, was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:06 p.m. EDT on Friday.
“We have conducted extensive testing here in our laboratory and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there is no substitute for in-orbit testing,” Rajeev Badial, vice president of technology for the Kuiper project, said in a statement. “This is the first time Amazon has sent satellites into space, and we will learn an incredible amount of information regardless of how the mission goes.”
United Launch Alliance cut off the live broadcast of the launch after its rocket’s first stage — the part that provides the initial boost at liftoff — finished firing its engines. The company did Sure “Mission success,” he said in a New release They delivered the satellites “exactly”. Amazon could not immediately confirm the satellite connection.
If the mission is successful, Amazon could join the queue to begin adding hundreds more satellites to orbit, eventually building a network of more than 3,200 satellites that will work side by side to bring Internet connectivity to Earth.
It’s the same business model used by Starlink, SpaceX’s rapidly growing constellation since 2019. SpaceX already has more than 4,500 active Starlink satellites in orbit and provides commercial and residential services to most of the Americas, Europe and Australia.
The space industry is in the midst of a revolution. Until relatively recently, most space communications services were provided by large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which is located thousands of miles from Earth. The drawback to this satellite Internet strategy was that the extreme distance of the satellites created frustrating delays.
Now, companies including SpaceX, OneWeb Amazon is looking to bring things closer to home.
Even before those companies started building their services, the satellite industry dreamed of delivering high-speed satellite Internet directly to consumers. There were several such efforts in the 1990s that either ended in bankruptcy or forced company owners to change their plans when expenses outweighed gains.
Cheap satellites and falling launch costs have led to the emergence of “superconstellations” in low Earth orbit, or LEO, located less than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above Earth. Unlike geostationary orbit, which allows satellites to remain stationary over the same area of Earth and send uninterrupted service to a specific area, satellites in low Earth orbit move at high speed. That’s why thousands of satellites have to work together to achieve this approach to covering the planet with connectivity.
Widespread high-speed Internet access could be revolutionary. As of 2021, nearly 3 billion people worldwide still lack basic access to the Internet, According to United Nations statistics. This is because the most common forms of Internet service, such as underground fiber optic cables, have not yet reached certain areas of the world.
SpaceX is outpacing its competitors in terms of growing its services, and its efforts so far have occasionally thrust the company into geopolitical controversy.
The company in particular faced a major setback in late 2022 and early 2023 for preventing Ukrainian forces on the front lines of the war with Russia from accessing Starlink services, which were crucial to Ukrainian military operations. (The company later changed course, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk discussed the Ukraine controversy in a recent book.)
Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation could become part of that conversation — in the face of similar geopolitical pressures — if the network proves successful.
“I’m also curious if Amazon is planning dual-use capabilities where government/defense would be a major customer. This could lead to targeting Kuiper like targeting Starlink in Ukraine,” Gregory Falco, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, said in a statement. “.
Despite promises of a global revolution in Internet access, the massive satellite constellations needed to broadcast the Internet around the world are controversial.
Indeed, there are thousands of pieces of space junk in low Earth orbit. The more objects there are in space, the greater the possibility of catastrophic collisions, which further exacerbates the problem.
The Federal Communications Commission, which authorizes space communications services, recently began strengthening its space debris mitigation policies.
For its part, the satellite industry has largely pledged to adhere to recommended best practices, including pledging to deorbit satellites as missions end.
in May Blog postAmazon has previously laid out its sustainability plans, which include ensuring its satellites can maneuver while in orbit.
Amazon also pledged safety deorbit The first two test satellites are at the end of their mission.
Separately, astronomers have continually raised concerns about the impact of all these low-Earth orbit satellites on the night sky, warning that these man-made objects could intrude and distort telescope observations and complicate ongoing research.
Amazon addressed these concerns in a statement to CNN, saying that one of the two satellite prototypes it launched on Friday will test anti-reflection technology aimed at mitigating telescope interference. The company is also consulting with astronomers from organizations like the National Science Foundation, according to Amazon spokesperson Brick Boyd.
SpaceX has made similar commitments.
It remains to be seen how well Project Kuiper will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink. While Starlink already has over a million customers, documents Recently obtained by the Wall Street Journal, SpaceX’s massive constellation has not been as successful as previously expected.
In terms of consumer price points: People can purchase a Starlink home user station for about $600 plus the cost of the monthly service.
Amazon said it hopes to produce Project Kuiper terminals for as low as about $400 per device, though the company has not yet begun offering or selling the terminals. The company did not reveal the price of Kuiper’s monthly services.
SpaceX has the clear advantage of using its Falcon 9 rockets to launch constellations of Starlink satellites into orbit.
Amazon doesn’t have its own rockets. While Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, is working on a rocket capable of reaching orbit, the project is years behind schedule.
Currently, Kuiper satellites are launched on rockets made by United Launch Alliance, a close partner of Blue Origin. In addition to ULA and Blue Origin, Amazon has a Project Kuiper launch contract with a European launch provider Arianespace.
On August 28, the Cleveland Bakers & Teamsters Retirement Fund, which owns a stake in Amazon, filed a lawsuit against the company over the launch contracts. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon executives “knowingly and willfully breached their fundamental fiduciary responsibilities” in part by giving up the option to launch Project Kuiper satellites on rockets made by SpaceX, which the lawsuit claims is “one of the most cost-effective launch providers.” “.
An Amazon spokesperson said: “The allegations in this lawsuit have absolutely no merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process.”
If all goes as planned, Amazon said it intends to launch its first production satellites early next year and begin offering beta testing to initial customers by the end of 2024, according to New release.
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