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Amazon’s Project Kuiper Preps 2 Trial LEO Broadband Satellites

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021 (2:50 pm) - Score 600
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Internet shopping giant Amazon has announced that they will launch two prototype Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites by Q4 2022, which will be used to test technologies for their new global ultrafast broadband service that is designed to compete with established constellations from SpaceX (Starlink) and OneWeb.

As we’ve said before, the idea of LEOs is that they orbit significantly closer to Earth – in Amazon’s case it’s around 600km versus 35,000km for a large GSO Satellite – and are comparatively small. 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) – provided it can be matched by plenty of Ground Stations.

NOTE: Project Kuiper’s LEOs will communicate with ground stations using the 17.8-18.6GHz and 28.6-29.1GHz bands.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA granted Amazon approval to deploy and operate their own constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites as part of Project Kuiper. At the last update, the company planned to launch half of its constellation no later than mid-2026 and the rest would then be completed by the middle of 2029, which is well behind their rivals at SpaceX (Starlink) and UK based OneWeb.

The new service will need at least 578 LEOs to be launched before it can even begin to offer a limited commercial service to a number of initial regions, but prior to that they intend to test all of their new technologies (e.g. phased array and parabolic antennas, power / propulsion systems, custom-designed modems and customer terminals) and software via two prototype satellites – KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2. Both will launch by Q4 2022.

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

“We’ve invented lots of new technology to meet our cost and performance targets for Project Kuiper. All of the systems are testing well in simulated and lab settings, and we’ll soon be ready to see how they perform in space. There is no substitute for on-orbit testing, and we expect to learn a lot given the complexity and risk of operating in such a challenging environment. We can’t wait to get started.”

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, just so happens to own his own rocket company (Blue Origin), which will at some point come in handy for helping to launch the constellation (Elon Musk is similarly responsible for SpaceX and Starlink). However, this facility will not be ready in time for the prototype satellites, which will instead launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida via the new RS1 rocket from ABL Space Systems (estimated to cost $12m per launch).

The company currently employs 750 people on the project and will add hundreds more as they build over the coming year. Meanwhile, the service itself could eventually serve “tens of millions of customers around the world,” mostly in underserved areas (e.g. remote rural communities), which is similar to what their rivals are doing.

Amazon has also issued an update on their approach to avoiding clutter in space (space junk) and disruption to astronomical observations.

Amazon on Protecting Earth and Space

Amazon is committed to being a responsible steward of Earth and space, and we’ve architected our system and operational procedures to help protect others operating in and around low Earth orbit. KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 are designed for atmospheric demise and will be actively deorbited after the mission, and our application outlines additional measures we’re taking to avoid and mitigate the risk of orbital debris.

The team is also committed to working with astronomers and others in the industry to reduce the visibility of Kuiper System satellites. We’ve joined several conferences to engage directly with organizations like the National Science Foundation and the American Astronomical Society and are applying learnings from those discussions to our prototype plans.

For example, one of the two prototype satellites will include a sunshade to help us understand whether it is an effective way to reduce reflectivity and mitigate its impact on ground-based optical telescopes. We will collect data to compare reflectivity between the two spacecraft, and share any learnings with the astronomy community following the mission.

However, there’s no avoiding that it will be hard for space researchers to avoid some impact from the presence of so many LEOs floating around in low earth orbit, much as has already been seen with Starlink. On top of that there remains a big question mark over the long-term commercial viability of all these mega constellations, which have a lot to prove.

As for the broadband performance of Amazon’s service, little is known about what consumers can expect (see modelling) or how much it might cost, although the antenna for their low-cost customer terminals in the KA-band has been rated to handle data speeds of “up to400Mbps (Megabits per second), with further improvements expected in the future. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Kuiper will actually deliver such speeds to end-users.

In any case, we’re still a long way away from any kind of commercial launch. In the meantime, OneWeb and Starlink will continue to enjoy a sizeable head start.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
3 Responses
  1. Yatta! says:

    I’m surprised Amazon picked an untested launch vehicle for its test launch and by the its unambitious timeframe.

    Blue Origin’s New Glenn with its huge payload fairing and very large 45 MT capacity, should be ready by Q4 2022. That coupled with the amount of cash at their disposal, I wouldn’t think it was unreasonable aim for completion of their initial constellation, by their ‘mid-2026’ halfway goal.

    1. Tim says:

      They’ve already admitted that they can’t reach the target by using just Blue Origin and that several companies will launch Kuiper, it was announced earlier in the year that ULAs Atlas V will fly several lunches. Two test sats are way too small to waste a large rocket on and there are loads of cheap small rockets in development but not a lot are proven yet.

    2. Yatta! says:

      @Tim: I wasn’t suggesting New Glenn launching the test satellites, as it too would be untested and potentially not even ready, or they be launched alone on another ‘large rocket’.

      I’ve looked into it, there aren’t any ‘NewSpace’ launch vehicles in RS1’s payload capacity range that are operational, so Amazon would have to go with a much more expensive small-lift launcher from a conventional provider or a rideshare.

      Yes, I’m aware that ULA are providing launch services for early Kuiper sats, however when New Glenn is operational and proven, it should be capable of orbiting one hundred Kuiper sats per launch, if not more.

      Assuming New Glenn is flight worthy by mid 2023, at that rate Kuiper could conservatively be completed by mid 2026 with ten launches per year, likely fewer.

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