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Now Amazon Plans 3236 Strong Satellite Broadband Constellation

Friday, April 5th, 2019 (8:17 am) - Score 4,646
satellite in earth orbit

Internet retail giant Amazon has joined SpaceX, Facebook, Telesat and British registered OneWeb to become the latest company with an eye toward launching a new global “low-latency, high-speed” broadband network, which will be supported by a huge constellation of 3,236 small Satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Most modern communication Satellites tend to be huge platforms (spacecraft the size of a double decker bus) that are positioned in a high Geostationary Orbit (GSO) around Earth (around 36,000km), which keeps them stable and delivers good coverage. On the other hand they’re also colossally expensive to build, have limited total capacity and the distances involved result in slow latency times that struggle to go faster than 600ms (milliseconds).

By comparison LEO Satellites sit at a significantly closer altitude of around 2,000km or less and as such they also have a much shorter lifespan, after which they will disintegrate into the atmosphere. The only way to make this approach viable is to build lots of significantly smaller / cheaper spacecraft, which deliver faster latency times (potentially around 25-35ms) but can easily be replaced and will beat the broadband performance of GSOs.

In recent years the cost of access to Space has come down significantly, thanks in no small part to commercial firms like SpaceX and rocket re-usability, which has started to make the concept of huge LEO constellations viable (OneWeb and SpaceX examples here and here). Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, even has his own rocket company called Blue Origin. No prizes for guessing how he’s going to launch the new Satellites.

Apparently Amazon’s new LEO constellation is called Project Kuiper and like all such schemes it will focus upon delivering “high-speed broadband” to poorly internet connected and unconnected parts of the world. The Satellites themselves will sit in an orbit at several different altitudes between 590km and 630km (ITU filings here and here), which is extremely low but may also give them better latency at the cost of coverage and lifespan.

A Spokesperson for Amazon said:

“This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

The market for LEO based broadband satellites would appear to have become increasingly crowded, although so far only SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat have launched just a few of their platforms into orbit and those are still in the pre-commercial trial stage. Nevertheless it now seems inevitable that hundreds, and then thousands more, satellites will follow over the next few years (most of the launches seem to be planned between 2020-2022).

Interestingly Blue Origin has already signed a deal with Telesat to launch their constellation, which almost sounds like a conflict of interest for Amazon’s founder. Competition looks set to become fierce and that will at least mean competitive pricing for those of us back down on Earth. On the other hand it also suggests that there will inevitably be winners and losers in this battle.

Aside from the sheer complexity of managing such a huge constellation of spacecraft (tricky to avoid breaks in data coverage), there are also on-going concerns about the rising levels of “space junk” in orbit. Ensuring that all of these new LEOs decay correctly so that they don’t add to the growing problem will be an interesting challenge.

It probably doesn’t help that countries like India have been testing anti-Satellite missiles at similar orbits to where the LEOs will operate, which scattered debris far and wide. Much of this will “eventually” fall back down to disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere but, while it remains, there’s still a risk to other rockets and spacecraft. Thanks for that.. India.

Leave a Comment
12 Responses
  1. Avatar Mike

    Well if it’s any constellation those missiles will be probably be aimed at Pakistan instead now 😉

  2. Avatar Badem

    and the Cascade event come 3k+ steps closer to fruition

  3. Avatar David

    Imagine Your net going offline as the broadband satellite decided to drift of into outer space our hit by a asteroid… You be waiting for a month for net to come back online till they launched a new satellite up into space

    • Avatar NE555

      There are over 3,000 other satellites to take its place. They are constantly moving over the earth’s surface (circling the entire globe about once every 90 minutes) so you’ll be continuously handed off from one satellite to another anyway.

      As for “drifting into outer space”: the Earth’s gravity well has something to say about that. But drifting down into the atmosphere and burning up, certainly.

  4. Avatar Craig

    I am guessing that this won’t be included as part of Amazon Prime member and will be an extra subscription.
    Also a basic question, if you had a Sky dish, I’m guessing you would need another one for the broadband? Sorry may sound like a basic question.

    • Avatar Bob2002

      Yes you’d be getting some type of low profile phased array antenna(electronically steerable), as I understand it.

  5. Avatar Adam

    Stupid question incoming.

    Would we be able to put a receiver/transmitter tech in phones to work with these satellites? Sort of like gps? I imagine these sorts of satellites work completely differently from your typical gps satellite but that won’t stop me from asking.

  6. Avatar arthur williamson

    what a ridiculously pointless exercise, why would anyone need internet faster than it already is. it does everything we want it to. Why risk extra electrosmog, and space junk.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      The internet isn’t fast for everyone – there are lots of places where it just isn’t possible to get a usable broadband connection. Satellite is one approach that will make the internet available to more of the world’s population, wherever they happen to live.
      Space junk is a problem (for satellite companies, not the general population), and there are approaches that manage the problem.

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