Amazon’s project Kuiper takes on SpaceX’s Starlink

Amazon is on the brink of launching its inaugural test satellites for Project Kuiper, setting the stage for an intense rivalry with SpaceX’s Starlink. These “protoflight” satellites will assess Amazon’s capacity to deliver broadband internet from space. With a commitment of over $10 billion, Project Kuiper aspires to deploy 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit, offering global internet coverage. While Starlink has demonstrated demand for space-based internet, Amazon’s success in the direct-to-consumer segment remains uncertain. Amazon’s eagerness is evident in its reservation of an entire Atlas V rocket for just two test satellites. The road ahead is filled with challenges, from rocket selection to competition in a crowded space internet market.

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Amazon to Launch Long-Delayed Satellites in Race With SpaceX

By Loren Grush and Matt Day

(Bloomberg) —

Amazon.com Inc. is poised to launch its first two test satellites for Project Kuiper on Friday, as Jeff Bezos’ tech giant races to build out a massive internet-from-space constellation to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink.

The test satellites are set to take off on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V workhorse rocket in Florida at 2 p.m. local time. Dubbed the “protoflight” mission, the satellites, which Amazon hoped to have in space a year ago, are meant to test out the company’s ability to beam broadband internet from orbit.

It’ll be the first in-flight test of Amazon’s ambitious Project Kuiper initiative, on which it’s pledged to spend more than $10 billion. 

Similar to SpaceX’s Starlink, Kuiper aims to blanket the globe with 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit. Customers who purchase small user terminals, unveiled by Amazon in March, will be able to send and receive signals from future Kuiper satellites.

Kuiper is just one of many broadband megaconstellations that are planned for this decade, but it aims to become only the second operational service for individual consumers, after Starlink. 

Starlink has shown there is a market for low latency internet-from-space. But it’s unclear how profitable the direct-to-consumer segment is and whether Amazon can make it work.

“Everyone’s sort of assuming that because SpaceX can do these things, everyone else can do them too,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space sustainability nonprofit, said. “Managing constellations of thousands – it’s plausible that someone else can do it, but not yet proven.”

Amazon declined to comment on the launch beyond a blog post about the mission. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. 

Eager to Launch

This launch has been a moving target for Amazon, with this pair of satellites — called KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 — originally slated to launch on a rocket built by ABL Space Systems as early as a year ago. But that startup’s rocket failed in its initial launch, and subsequent delays with ULA’s Vulcan sent Amazon in search of another option to get to space sooner.

The change in rides reflects Amazon’s eagerness to begin launching Project Kuiper. Amazon has yet to begin manufacturing and launching its satellites in bulk, while SpaceX continues to loft batches of its Starlink satellites into orbit with increasing frequency. It has nearly 5,000 active satellites in orbit.

Amazon needs to have half of its planned constellation in orbit by mid-2026 to be in compliance with its license under the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates frequencies for communicating with satellites.

Highlighting Amazon’s haste is the fact that the company has reserved an entire Atlas V rocket to launch these two small test satellites to space. Each Kuiper satellite is estimated to weigh between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds (589 and 680 kilograms), according to research from space advisory firm Quilty Analytics LLC. That means Kuipersat-1 and 2 are dwarfed by the Atlas V’s powerful launch capability, which can send up to 44,000 pounds (19,958 kilograms) of cargo to low-Earth orbit.

“Launching two small satellites on a heavy-lift rocket is overkill, unless the circumstances are dire,” said Caleb Henry, director of research at Quilty Analytics.

Uncertain Road Ahead

This pivotal launch comes at a time of change for Jeff Bezos’ separate rocket company, Blue Origin. On Sept. 25, Blue Origin said CEO Bob Smith would be replaced with Amazon executive David Limp, whose team oversees Kuiper.

In 2022, Amazon inked contracts for as many as 83 rocket launches to deploy Kuiper satellites from three different providers in what was the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history.

The multibillion-dollar launch contract included flights on Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Arianespace’s Ariane 6, and ULA’s Vulcan. All three vehicles have yet to launch to orbit, with Vulcan targeting December for its first flight.

While Amazon has purchased up to nine Atlas V launches, it’s an open question if Amazon can get its satellites into space fast enough. 

A company shareholder sued Amazon in August alleging the company cost itself millions of dollars because it didn’t consider SpaceX’s affordable Falcon 9 rocket due to the rivalry between Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. At the time, an Amazon spokesperson said “the claims in this lawsuit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process.”

“You’ve got to get thousands of satellites up in orbit, and right now, there’s really only one way to do that,” Weeden said. “And that’s SpaceX.”

Space Internet Market

It’s unclear what the market will look like by the time Kuiper is operating. Henry, of Quilty Analytics, said Amazon may have another opportunity to find customers by offering its cloud-computing services through Kuiper.

“They have a potential advantage in being able to serve their own cloud business and basically enhance that along with the other services that they provide,” said Henry.

Will there be enough customers to share? SpaceX said it recently surpassed 2 million active customers. That eclipses the biggest players in satellite internet, Henry said. 

But that number pales in comparison to major terrestrial broadband suppliers. And while the consumer market is vital to Starlink’s core business, SpaceX has put in significant effort to sell Starlink services to higher-paying businesses and governments, recently receiving its first US Space Force contract.

“The question here is how many people actually can afford the prices they are charging for this internet?” Weeden said, “Especially when you exempt all the people that have really good wired broadband in most of the developed world and big cities.”

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