Amazon’s ‘Project Kuiper’ satellite broadband moved one step closer following a reported 100 per cent success rate for its first two prototype satellites.
Like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with Project Kuiper, Amazon hopes to set up its own low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband network, i.e. 311 miles (500 kilometres) above Earth. It is still, however, in the early testing stage.
The only two satellites currently deployed by Amazon (and used to test Project Kuiper), were launched in early October using Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and which lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.
Amazon says that following the recent tests, “mass satellite production ahead of a full-scale deployment” will begin early next year, followed by beta testing which will begin in the second half of next year, with partners like Vodafone and Verizon participating in the service pilots.
Also, Amazon is inviting enterprise, telecommunications, and government customers to register (early next year) to take part in part in its pilot to help get Project Kuiper up and running in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future.
Amazon has reported that within 30 days of sending two prototype satellites into space, Project Kuiper achieved a 100 per cent success rate for its Protoflight mission, thereby “validating key technologies that underpin the network and moving the program another step closer toward that long-term vision.”
The company says the experience was unique to the Protoflight mission because it only has two satellites in orbit.
The company described the success of its two most recent Proto-flight tests as “an incredible feat.” The tests looked at different performance characteristics of the Project Kuiper network, on top of the basic functions of transmitting and receiving data. For example, the test looked at the performance of what Amazon calls the “RF communications payload,” which is the satellites’ parabolic antennas, phased array antennas, and other elements that will allow the system to send customer data traffic across the network.
The testing also involved three basic demonstrations of transmitting and receiving data over the Project Kuiper satellite network, which were:
– In the first demonstration, logging into an Amazon Prime account, searching for a product, adding it to the cart, and then checking out.
– In the second demonstration, logging into Prime Video, searching for the Amazon Original movie ‘A Million Miles Away’, and then streaming it as ultra-high definition (UHD) 4K video, thereby testing “network throughput and low latency”.
In the third demonstration, a two-way video call over Amazon Chime between Amazon’s test site in Texas and its mission operations centre in Washington, thereby testing low latency (for a smooth video call), and involving “full duplex” performance, with antennas simultaneously sending and receiving data.
The rapid deployment stage next year will essentially involve launching enough satellites to build a constellation to provide enough coverage. It’s been reported that, for example, Amazon has secured 77 heavy-lift vehicles over three launch providers to help with this.
SpaceX Second Launch – Explosion
Just days after Amazon’s announcement, on Saturday, Elon Musk’s SpaceX confirmed the second (test) launch of its SpaceX Starship rocket. Unfortunately, like the first test, it didn’t end particularly well. Apparently, the rocket flew for about eight minutes before SpaceX lost contact with it, and whilst the top part of the rocket successfully separated from the booster, it exploded shortly afterwards.
What’s So Good About Satellite Broadband, Anyway?
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has already been to space himself before any of his satellites, thanks to founding his own Blue Origin company which builds and launches reusable launch vehicles and in-space systems for civil, commercial, and defence customers. This, plus Amazon’s huge financial and market power and ability to diversify means that it was only a matter of time before it used these synergies and capabilities to start offering satellite broadband of its own.
This puts in in direct competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Starlink broadband, which already has around 4,500 orbiting satellites in operation (accounting for more than 50 per cent of all active satellites orbiting the Earth). This means that Amazon’s less snappy, rather awkwardly named Project Kuiper, with its 2 orbiting satellites has some catching up to do in order to keep up as a front runner in what is seen by some as the tech billionaires’ battle for space and control over what will become the global communications network, and the power and influence that brings.
Not only is satellite broadband beneficial in terms of allowing internet and communications access anywhere in the world (for homes and businesses) and in areas where options are limited, but as recent conflicts have shown and as the EU has recognised (with plans to launch its own 170 satellites), it will be vital for space-based sovereignty and secure communication services.
Some commentators also see the rush to launch communications satellites (which is becoming more complex due to the amount of satellites and space junk already in orbit) as a way for companies and countries to claim their own bit of ‘space.’ Amazon’s bold announcement therefore of 100 per cent success may have seemed a little weak, considering there are only 2 satellites to test, but it’s larger purpose was to highlight Amazon’s intent, readiness, and capability to challenge and establish itself as major player in space, as it is on earth, and it’s understood that Amazon plans to send up thousands of satellites over the next 5 years.
For households and businesses in unserved and underserved communities, plus to large enterprises and government agencies operating all over the world, satellite broadband offers reliable, fast connections and for Starlink, Amazon (and no doubt others to follow), it offers not just another source of revenue, but power, influence, and staking a claim in the future.
By Mike Knight