Amazon has officially joined the race to build massive constellations of satellites that can blanket the globe in internet connectivity — a move that puts the tech company in direct competition with SpaceX.
The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s network, called Project Kuiper, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:06 p.m. ET Friday.
“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” said Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, in a statement. “This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds.”
If successful, the mission could queue up Amazon to begin adding hundreds more of the satellites into orbit, eventually building a network of more than 3,200 satellites that will work in tandem to beam internet connectivity to the ground.
It’s the same business model employed by Starlink, the SpaceX constellation that has been growing rapidly since 2019. Already, SpaceX has more than 4,500 active Starlink satellites in orbit and offers commercial and residential service to most of the Americas, Europe and Australia.
The space industry is in the midst of a revolution. Until relatively recently, most space-based telecommunications services were provided by large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which lies thousands of miles away from Earth. The drawback with this space-based internet strategy was that the extreme distance of the satellites created frustrating lag times.
Now, companies including SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are looking to bring things closer to home.
Even before those companies began to build their services, the satellite industry dreamed of delivering high-speed, space-based internet directly to consumers.
Cheaper satellites and lower launch costs have led to the emergence of “megaconstellations” in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, that lie less than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above Earth. Unlike geostationary orbit, which allows satellites to stay fixed over the same area of Earth and beam uninterrupted service to a certain area, satellites in LEO whisk by at high speed.
That’s why thousands of satellites are required to work together for this approach to blanket the planet in connectivity.
Such widespread high-speed internet access could be revolutionary. As of 2021, nearly 3 billion people across the globe still lacked basic internet access, according to statistics from the United Nations.
That’s because more common forms of internet service, such as underground fiber optic cables, had not yet reached certain areas of the world.
Global implications and controversies
SpaceX is well ahead of the competition in terms of growing its service, and its efforts so far have occasionally thrust the company into geopolitical controversy.
Despite the promises of a global internet access revolution, the massive satellite megaconstellations needed to beam internet across the globe are controversial.
Already, there are thousands of pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit. And the more objects there are in space, the more likely it is that disastrous collisions could occur, further exacerbating the issue.
For its part, the satellite industry has largely pledged to abide by recommended best practices, including pledging to deorbit satellites as missions conclude.
Amazon addressed those concerns in a statement to CNN, saying one of the two prototype satellites it launched Friday will test antireflective technology aiming to mitigate telescope interference. The company has also been consulting with astronomers.