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Amazon to go head to head with SpaceX in battle for space internet dominance

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are about to lock horns once again. Last month, the US Federal Communications Commission approved the final aspects of Project Kuiper, Amazon’s effort to deliver high-speed internet access from space. In May, the company will launch test versions of the Kuiper communications satellites in an attempt to take on SpaceX’s own venture, Starlink, and tap into a market of perhaps hundreds of millions of prospective internet users.

Other companies are hoping to do the same, and a few are already doing so, but Starlink and Amazon are the major players. “It is really a head-to-head rivalry,” says Tim Farrar, a satellite expert from the firm TMF Associates in the US.

The rocket that will launch Amazon’s first two Kuiper satellites—the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket—has been assembled at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its inaugural launch is set to fly two prototype Kuiper satellites, called KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, as early as May 4. Ultimately, Amazon plans to launch a total of 3,236 full Kuiper satellites by 2029. The first of that fleet could launch in early 2024.

“They have ambitions to be disruptive across the technology sector,” says Farrar. “It’s hardly surprising that they’ve jumped in here.”

In the past few years, companies have been trying to expand access to the internet via satellite, both as commercial ventures and to supply internet to those in remote locations without otherwise easy access. Starlink, the mega-constellation of more than 3,500 satellites built by Musk’s SpaceX, is the biggest of these ventures.

Amazon announced Project Kuiper in 2019, the same year Starlink began launching, leading Musk to tweet that Bezos, then the company’s CEO, was a “copycat.” Others are in development too, such as the UK-based OneWeb, which currently has more than 500 satellites. But Farrar says the key competition is between SpaceX and Amazon.

To take on SpaceX, last year Amazon revealed it had essentially bought all the spare rocket launch capacity in the world (although with little effect on its rival, because SpaceX launches satellites on its own rockets). Thanks to Amazon’s multibillion-dollar deals with United Launch Alliance, Bezos’s Blue Origin in the US, and Arianespace in Europe, Project Kuiper satellites are expected to fly on 92 different launches over the next five years.

The rapid launch cadence is important. Under its license with the FCC, Amazon has until July 2026 to launch half its constellation. “We are on track to meet that deadline,” an Amazon spokesperson said. Last month, the FCC gave Amazon the full green light to begin launching its satellites after the company finalized details of its plan to address concerns about its potential to increase space junk.

But there is a catch: none of the rockets Amazon has bought a ride on has yet made it to space (in fact, one launch vehicle Amazon had initially planned to use exploded in January). “Those rockets are largely behind schedule,” says Farrar.

The satellites are meant to orbit at an altitude of about 600 kilometers and cover latitudes from Canada to Argentina, reaching “95% of the world’s population,” the Amazon spokesperson said. “Our constellation will serve individual households, as well as businesses, schools, hospitals, government agencies, and other organizations operating in locations without reliable broadband.”

Amazon has applied to the FCC to increase its constellation to 7,774 satellites, which would allow it to cover regions further north and south, including Alaska, as Starlink does.

There are riches to be had: SpaceX currently charges $110 a month to access Starlink, with an up-front cost of $599 for an antenna to connect to the satellites. According to a letter to shareholders last year, Amazon is spending “over $10 billion” to develop Kuiper, with more than 1,000 employees working on the project. Andy Jassy, Amazon’s current CEO, has said that Kuiper has a chance of becoming a “fourth pillar” for the company, alongside its retail marketplace, Amazon Prime, and its widely used cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services

“Amazon’s business model relies on people having internet connectivity,” says Shagun Sachdeva, an industry expert at the space investment firm Kosmic Apple in France. “It makes a lot of sense for them to have this constellation to provide connectivity.”

Amazon is not yet disclosing the pricing of its service but has previously said a goal is to “bridge the digital divide” by bringing fast and affordable broadband to “underserved communities,” an ambition Starlink has also professed. But whether costs will ever get low enough for that to be achievable remains to be seen. “Costs will come down, but to what extent is really the question,” says Sachdeva. On March 14, the company revealed it was producing its own antennas at a cost of $400 for a standard antenna, although a retail cost has not yet been revealed.

Amazon has said it can offer speeds of up to one gigabit per second, and bandwidth of one terabit per second. Those are similar to Starlink’s numbers, and the two services seem fairly similar overall. The key difference is that Starlink is operational, and has been for years, whereas Amazon does not plan to start offering Kuiper as a service until the latter half of 2024, giving SpaceX a considerable head start to attract users and secure contracts.

The astronomy problem
There remain concerns, too, about space junk and the impact on ground-based astronomy. Before 2019 there were only about 3,000 active satellites in space. SpaceX and Amazon by themselves could increase that number to 20,000 by the end of this decade. Tracking large numbers of moving objects in orbit—and making sure they don’t collide with one another—is a headache.

“I’m not satisfied that we can safely sustain [even] one of these systems in orbit,” says Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in the UK, who has tracked thousands of close calls between Starlink, OneWeb, and other satellites. “They’re continually rolling the dice. At some point, in spite of all their best efforts, I think there will be a collision.”

Amazon’s spokesperson said the company had “designed our system and operational parameters with space safety in mind.” When satellites finish their mission, the spokesperson added, they will be removed from orbit within one year using onboard thrusters, and in the case of satellite failure, atmospheric drag will “help ensure any remaining satellites will deorbit naturally.”

Amazon has not revealed the size of its satellites, but—like Starlink’s—they might reflect enough sunlight to pose a problem to astronomers and even change the appearance of the night sky. Attempts to lessen the impact satellites have on astronomy have been moderately successful at best, with the satellites appearing particularly bright at twilight. Telescope observations of the universe are already affected by bright satellite streaks, and the problem is likely to worsen in the future.

Amazon has said it is working with astronomers on the issue. “Reflectivity is a key consideration in our design and development process,” the company spokesperson said. “We’ve already made a number of design and operational decisions that will help reduce our impact on astronomical observations.”

If the problem cannot fully be solved, however, some aspects of astronomy will become much more difficult or even impossible. “Starlink has not managed to make their satellites nearly as faint as they promised,” says Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada. “I’m quite worried what the sky will look like with yet another company launching thousands of potentially bright satellites.”

With plans to build up to four satellites per day, Amazon plans to progress rapidly. After its first two test satellites have launched, the rest could come thick and fast. Can the company take on Musk? “That’s the big question,” says Farrar. “They have to move quickly.” Technology Review

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