Amazon is set to launch a pair of prototype satellites into space early next year that will eventually form part of its Kuiper low Earth orbit internet constellation – rivalling SpaceX’s Starlink.
The satellites will launch aboard the first flight of the new United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket, set to take off in the first quarter of 2023, as a secondary payload. The primary payload will be the Peregrine lunar lander built by Astrobotic Technology.
Amazon had hoped to get their test satellites into space this year using a rocket built by ABL Space Systems but the start-up has faced development delays so Amazon switched to ULA, which is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
It was a logical switch as Amazon has already contracted ULA for 38 launches to get the bulk of its constellation into low Earth orbit over the next few years.
The first launch is of test satellites that won’t form part of the final constellation but are rather prototypes that Amazon says will allow it to test different pieces of the satellite network and how they might work together – getting real-world data from space.
“We’ll use findings from the mission to help finalise design, deployment, and operational plans for our commercial satellite system, which will provide reliable, affordable broadband to customers around the world,” the company said in a statement.
Amazon plans to have a constellation of 3,236 internet satellites orbiting about 600km above the surface of the Earth, a similar altitude to the SpaceX Starlink constellation, made up of more than 3,000 satellites already, with plans for more than 10,000 in the future.
The two companies could also face competition from UK-based OneWeb, which is in the process of merging with French rival Eutelsat and has plans for a constellation of more than 600 satellites, 400 of which are already in orbit.
Amazon satellite internet: first half to launch by 2026
The first 1,500 Amazon Kuiper satellites need to be operational by 2026 under the terms of its licence from the US communications regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is the point where there will be enough coverage to offer a limited internet service to the public.
“We’ve already secured 38 Kuiper launches on Vulcan, and using the same launch vehicle for our prototype mission gives us a chance to practice payload integration, processing, and mission management procedures ahead of those full-scale commercial launches,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper.
In total it will take 92 launches to get the entire constellation into space, with others provided by European launch company Arianespace and Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Traditional satellite internet, used as a backup by companies and organisations operating in remote parts of the world, suffers from high latency which makes it unreliable for modern everyday internet due to the fact the satellites are thousands of miles from the Earth – but only a few are needed.
Low Earth-orbiting satellites are much closer and don’t suffer from latency problems, but this comes with the issue that each satellite only covers a small part of the planet, so thousands are needed for global coverage. SpaceX has the largest network but Amazon hopes to catch up quickly. OneWeb, which is part-owned by the UK government, currently sells its services to companies as a backup connection rather than directly to consumers.
Amazon plans to spend $10bn on its Kuiper project in a bid to catch up with SpaceX and offer global internet services. The exact form and price this will take hasn’t been revealed although Starlink is £89 per month in the UK, so pricing is likely to be similar.
Amazon said it will keep the contract open with ABL for a pair of launches but has not yet decided what they will be used to send into space.