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Amazon’s Kuiper System Enters the LEO Broadband Satellite Space

Friday, July 31st, 2020 (8:42 am) - Score 1,414
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Online shopping giant Amazon has confirmed that they plan to invest over $10 billion (£7.60bn) in order to build their own mega constellation of 3,236 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to rival SpaceX and OneWeb, which will aim to deliver ultrafast broadband to some of the poorest connected communities across the world.

As we’ve said before with SpaceX (Starlink) and OneWeb, the idea of LEOs is that they orbit significantly closer to earth (in Amazon’s case, around 600km, versus 35,000km for a large GSO Satellite) and are comparatively small (smaller than an adult person, with solar panels folded-in). Sadly, this means you need a lot more of them for good coverage, but that quantity also delivers lots of data capacity and relatively low latency (often c.20-40ms).

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA has now granted Amazon approval to deploy and operate their own constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites as part of Project Kuiper. The company currently plans to launch half of its constellation no later than mid-2026 and the rest should be completed by the middle of 2029, which puts them well behind their rivals.

Not unlike SpaceX and OneWeb, Amazon expects to need at least 578 satellites to be launched before it can begin to offer a limited commercial service to a number of initial regions. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns his own rocket company (Blue Origin) and that will no doubt come in handy for helping to loft some of the constellation (Elon Musk is similarly responsible for SpaceX and Starlink, among other companies).

The Kuiper satellites will use advanced phased array antennas with multiple user beams. The antennas and software-defined network (SDN) functionality should allow flexible frequency and capacity allocation, depending on the needs of customers within a given region.

Rajeev Badyal, VP of Technology for Project Kuiper, said:

“We are doing an incredible amount of invention to deliver fast, reliable broadband at a price that makes sense for customers. LEO-based broadband systems like Project Kuiper present a huge number of challenges, and we have assembled a world-class team of engineers and scientists who are committed to delivering on our vision for Project Kuiper and keeping space a safe, sustainable environment for everyone.

Combine that with Amazon’s deep expertise in networking and infrastructure and its ability to finance such a huge undertaking, and I am optimistic about the impact we can have for these unserved and underserved communities.”

In addition to providing ground station service directly to customers, Project Kuiper will also provide backhaul solutions for wireless carriers extending 4G (LTE) and 5G mobile service to new regions. Together, it’s hoped these projects will expand broadband access to more households in the USA and around the world.

However, in order to avoid the risk of “space junk“, each LEO will only stay up for a few years before being de-orbited (this process will take less than 1 year when planned or under 10 years – passive de-orbit – if a satellite fails). But astronomers will no doubt be concerned at any increase in the number of LEOs, particularly with SpaceX’s early fleet causing more than a few problems for observational science (mitigation efforts are underway).

Otherwise one big problem that all of these mega constellations have is that they’re yet prove they can deliver a viable and affordable commercial broadband service, particularly on the consumer front. SpaceX should be the first to cross that line next year, but it will take time before we know what sort of take-up and performance they can truly achieve in the real-world.

The huge investment being made by Amazon and SpaceX also help to highlight the challenge for rival OneWeb, which was recently rescued by the UK government and Bharti Global for £800m ($1bn). But in order to stay competitive they’ll need to invest significantly more to launch at least a few hundred extra satellites. Like it or not, space is a very expensive and risky business.

Leave a Comment
16 Responses
  1. Avatar BT FTTP says:

    Great.

    Several companies all competing to place ‘space’ junk in the air 1000’s of them.

    Headline news soon this junk starts going out of control and crashing onto homes/people.

    Good idea, lets put loads of heavy metal objects that gravity can accelerate. It won’t burn up coming down for example.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Why do you think they wouldn’t burn up, controlled deorbit or otherwise? Any debris de-orbiting will usually burn up harmlessly on atmospheric re-entry, particularly small spacecraft.

    2. Avatar BT FTTP says:

      Based on historical evidence. Lots of stuff has not fully burned up when falling from space before, and these aren’t really as high up as “real space” – they are much lower orbit.

      Also potential for night sky detritus glowing in the dark.

    3. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      As I said, these new LEO spacecraft have been designed to disintegrate, they are not comparable to existing large satellites or more solid objects of different sizes at higher orbits. But as always, the proof will be in the pudding, but I recall that SpaceX did deliberately destroy some test platforms early on to test their models and all went well.

      As for burning up itself, what really matters is your speed and angle when re-entry occurs into the “thicker” parts of the atmosphere.

      I won’t get into the complex debate around where our atmosphere ends, but most people use the Kármán line as the altitude where space begins (100km). The ISS space station sits around 400km, just below where all these LEOs will be going.. hazardous.

  2. Avatar Granola says:

    One good coronal mass ejection (solar flare) could do untold damage to all such systems. It would take billions and years to recover from such an event. Respect to them for taking that risk besides the commercial one.

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      It’d also burn out everything not protected against EMP on the ground so it’s all good. Or bad.

  3. Avatar JAH says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if all these companies would just ‘play together’ and create one really good set of shared satellites, thus reducing billions in expenditure and, more importantly, reducing the huge environmental harm.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Sounds like a monopoly, which tend to inhibit trade, competition and innovation, while also leading to higher prices. A bit of diversity can be a good thing, but when it comes to the field of LEO space.. I do take your point.

  4. Avatar Yatta! says:

    Another nail in Oneweb’s coffin…

  5. Avatar Neil says:

    I have to be honest the OneWeb purchase does seem suspect, and when people say, oh well I am sure they did due diligence, I am not sure that counts for much. Look at the number of corporate buyouts, which simply do not stack post merger.

    I think that Project Kuiper does have the advantage that it has vast fortune of Jeff Bezo behind it, though to counter balance that, they haven’t actually launched anything yet with their own larger rocket.

    Though the latest launch of Starlink-9 seems to be struggling to get of the pad, given the number of scrubs recently.

    NOTE – The initial versions of the Starlink (v0.9 * 60, were 95% degradable), since v1.0 then they are “meant” to be 100%.

  6. Avatar Name says:

    aws kuiper –create new

  7. Avatar Matthew says:

    I know it slightly off topic but how is the U.K. planning to launch satellites ?

    1. Avatar tonyp says:

      I suppose we could dust off the Blue Streak blueprints which might have carried a British nuclear bomb if we hadn’t opted for Polaris?

  8. Avatar tonyp says:

    Although the LEO satellites may burn up into dust or small fragments, what happens to the ‘dust’ when that filters into the atmosphere – the satellites can’t simply disappear. A nice shower of metals? Will some be toxic to animal life if ingested? Or will the debris simply drift off into interstellar space beyond, free of gravity? Is a future health problem being created for our children and grandchildren and so on?

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      You might be overlooking the impact of all the other things that strike and break through our atmosphere, such as asteroids (little and large) and cosmic rays. But in a world with trump, climate change, COVID-19 and so much instability.. LEOs are perhaps the least of our concerns.

    2. Avatar tonyp says:

      Mark, I note your comments but I also note “LEOs are perhaps the least of OUR concerns”. They may not concern us but when thousands of high tech refrigerator sized satellites break up in the atmosphere over the years, who knows what would happen to cosmic, gamma and other rays and possibly nuclear particles descend on future generations. Has there been a scientific study of predicted effects? You might have to compare that to asbestos contamination before the knowledge of the cancerous effects was known. The atmosphere protects us from harmful rays but already there are holes. Yes we receive tons of meteorite ash and even Chelyabinsk lumps of and most are benign. However to artificially contaminate the atmosphere in the name of corporate expansion (I was going to say greed) or political prowess I think is immoral. If the astronomers are concerned about the effects of thousands of refrigerators in the sky, and perhaps a cloud of man made particles lodged fogging the sky, so should we for our descendants.

      Mind you, I’ll be long dead before that happens. But that is no excuse.

      Can’t we be satisfied with wiring the planet?

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