Internet: Amazon ready to challenge SpaceX in satellite launch sprint

Posted on 8 Dec. 2022 at 7:20 am

Small annoyance for Elon Musk: the billionaire has still not obtained the authorizations he wanted to strengthen his Starlink satellite constellation, with which he wants to distribute the Internet around the world.

While SpaceX has already launched around 3,000 satellites into low orbit, the United States’ federal telecommunications authority, the all-powerful Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has apparently heeded the warnings of the billionaire’s competitors. It authorized Starlink to deploy its new generation of satellites, but within a ceiling set at 7,500 units, when SpaceX requested authorizations for 30,000 satellites.

Leave room for the competition

This limited authorization “should help other satellite operators to protect themselves from interference phenomena and should maintain a space environment safe and open to competition, while protecting the future use of orbital resources”, explains the FCC. And it requires SpaceX to remain in an orbit between 525 and 535 kilometers from Earth, prohibiting it from invading the orbit reserved by Amazon for its Kuiper constellation.

In addition, the FCC requires Starlink to de-orbit its old satellites no later than five years after the end of their useful lives, so as not to clutter up space with satellites that have become space debris. Worse, it threatens to withdraw its permits if the constellation has more than 100 unusable satellites in the air.

The FCC thus seems to have finally taken into account the complaints of many satellite operators, who criticized Starlink’s hegemony. Starting with Amazon, which wants to deploy the Kuiper constellation by 2026. But also traditional satellite operators like ViaSat or telecommunications.

Amazon is ready to launch its test satellites

Passing through Paris last week, the vice president of Amazon’s devices and services division, Dave Limp, confirmed to “Echos” that the e-commerce giant is ready to launch its own Kuiper constellation. The first two satellite prototypes will be launched into orbit in the first quarter of 2023 and, if all goes well, the rest will be deployed from 2024. 100 megabits per second per customer, with very low latency”, he explains.

For Amazon, time is running out: authorizations obtained from the FCC require it to deploy at least half of its constellation by mid-2026. Last April, Amazon surprised by announcing an exceptional launch contract, with the reservation of 83 launches in five years, including 18 with the Ariane 6 rocket; 38 on ULA’s future Vulcan launcher and 27 on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, the space company personally owned by Jeff Bezos.

Over $10 billion in investments

If these launchers, which promise their first flights in 2023, suffered further delays, Amazon would be in a delicate phase. The group has just carried out 9 flights on the old American Atlas V launcher, which has already proved to be enough to put about 270 satellites into orbit.

That’s why, seeking to reassure himself about the ignition delays of the Ariane 6 launcher, Dave Limp came to France last week to visit the Mureaux factory and take stock with the heads of Arianespace and ArianeGroup. , Stéphane Israel and André-Hubert Roussel. “I’m confident in the ArianeGroup and I’m satisfied with what I’ve seen,” he told Les Echos. Half of the future Ariane 6’s capacity is reserved by Kuiper.

In addition to launch restrictions, Dave Limp explains that Amazon doesn’t want to tie its constellation to a single rocket. “We want the launch market to be competitive and Europe to play its part”, he says. He specifies that he did not select SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket because its power is “insufficient” and points out that if Elon Musk managed to get his gigantic Starship launcher off the ground, Kuiper could, on the other hand, get on board.

For now, more than 1,000 employees work at its satellite and antenna factory in Redmond, near Seattle, and the group is still hiring and investing heavily. “Space is expensive, it takes at least 10 billion to get to the first customer, including launches”, confirms Dave Limp, without blinking.

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