Can’t get SpaceX Starlink? An alternative could be on the way soon.
This month, Amazon announced the next steps in its upcoming Project Kuiper satellite internet service. The project plans to launch 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, offering high speed and affordable broadband anywhere with a view of the sky.
Kuiper could be the latest in a trend of “mega-constellations,” which the European Space Agency describes as satellite constellations with hundreds or thousands of spacecraft. SpaceX’s Starlink was arguably the first: at the start of 2019, when it first launched, there were only around 5,000 satellites in total orbiting Earth. At the time of writing, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell counts 1,716 Starlink satellites in orbit — more than a quarter of the total in orbit back in 2019.
These constellations can orbit more satellites, closer to the ground, launching faster than ever thanks to increasingly easier access to space.
But as Starlink would-be customers wait months for deliveries and cancel their orders, here’s what to know about Kuiper.
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Amazon Project Kuiper: What is it?
Kuiper is a plan to launch 3,236 satellites into low-Earth orbit. The goal is to offer broadband internet with high speeds and low latencies to people underserved by traditional broadband providers.
According to its 2019 FCC application, these satellites would orbit between 590 to 630 kilometers (370 to 390 miles) altitude.
“We have heard so many stories lately about people who are unable to do their job or complete schoolwork because they don’t have reliable internet at home,” Dave Limp, senior vice president at Amazon, said in a statement. “There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all. Kuiper will change that.”
The project will use a “low-cost customer terminal” to deliver service to consumers. The dish measures 12 inches in diameter and offers up to 400 megabits per second of speed.
Amazon Project Kuiper: What is the monthly price?
It is unclear at this stage how much Kuiper will cost. Amazon is investing more than $10 billion into the project itself.
For comparison, SpaceX Starlink charges $499 plus shipping for the initial setup kit, then $99 per month thereafter for the service. Customers have to pay a $99 deposit to receive their kit, deducted from the final price of the setup kit.
As Kuiper describes its service as “affordable,” expect a price that can compete effectively with Starlink.
Amazon Project Kuiper: When is the release date?
Not for a while, it seems.
In November 2021, Amazon announced plans to launch two prototype satellites for the project. KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 will launch on ABL Systems’ RS1 rocket by the fourth quarter of 2022. The rocket will lift off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Amazon will use these launches to test prototype satellite dishes in Texas, connecting for up to four minutes five times per day. Following the mission, Amazon plans to deorbit the satellites. By comparison, SpaceX launched two prototype satellites in 2018 dubbed Tintin A and Tintin B. SpaceX wouldn’t start providing services to customers for another two years.
Amazon doesn’t expect to start services with Kuiper until it has launched 578 satellites into orbit, CNBC claimed this month.
In April, Amazon announced it had secured nine Atlas V launch vehicles, supplied by United Launch Alliance, for Kuiper.
Although Jeff Bezos founded both Amazon and Blue Origin, it seems the company won’t be using the latter firm for the initial launches. Limp told SpaceNews in December 2020 that Kuiper was “launch agnostic,” and the team would use whichever supplier was available.
Amazon Project Kuiper: How fast will the internet speeds be?
It’s unclear at this stage. The company designed the prototype antenna to support a maximum of 400 megabits per second, but Amazon also said that “performance will continue to improve in future iterations.”
Amazon Project Kuiper: How does it compare to SpaceX Starlink?
Starlink operates at a slightly lower altitude of 550 kilometers (340 miles). It’s also applied for permission to launch a staggering 42,000 satellites. In the beta phase, Starlink delivers speeds of up to around 200 megabits per second. Long-term, SpaceX aims to reach speeds of 10 gigabits per second.
By the time Kuiper launches its two test satellites, Starlink will have been supplying service for two years.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has publicly criticized Amazon, after the latter company pushed back on a SpaceX move to try and lower the orbit of its Starlink satellites. Amazon and others expressed concerns that the lower altitude would interfere with other satellites.
“It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” Musk wrote on Twitter in January 2021.
In response, Amazon released a statement:
The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers. Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest.
Bezos has also clashed with Musk over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a lucrative lunar lander contract for the upcoming Artemis missions.
Kuiper, it seems, looks set to become another battleground for the two billionaires.
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