Ugh, Amazon wants to add another 4,500 satellites to its internet array

Sure, let's add some more debris to Earth's orbit without knowing its environmental impact. Why not.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 2021/05/26: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads for orbit after ...
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Amazon has filed for the FCC’s approval to launch another 4,500 satellites into low-Earth orbit as part of its Project Kuiper internet project. The FCC already gave Amazon the go-ahead to shoot 3,236 satellites into space. The additional satellites would bring the retail giant’s total up to 7,774 satellites.

Beyond expanding its current satellite goals, Amazon also asked for the FCC’s approval to launch two prototype satellites by the end of next year. If approved — and they likely will be, seeing as the FCC voted unanimously to let Amazon begin this program in the first place — those prototypes will give Amazon a better idea of Project Kuiper’s realistic roadmap.

Amazon will compete most directly with Starlink, the nascent internet project from SpaceX. Starlink has already launched more than 1,800 satellites, putting it far ahead of Amazon’s prospects.

Like Starlink, Amazon is marketing its lofty satellite internet dreams as a public service. Amazon said in this week’s filing that the additional satellites will “serve households, hospitals, businesses, government agencies, and other organizations around the world, including in geographic areas where broadband access remains lacking.”

Musk vs. Amazon — The race to be the most prolific creator of space junk is officially on. When Starlink first started amassing its collection of satellites, it looked like Musk’s project might be the only one of its size. Planning to launch tens of thousands of satellites in the next couple of decades seemed like a moonshot at best.

But Amazon followed close at Musk’s heels. Satellite internet isn’t exactly an easy business to get into, but Amazon’s immense wealth of resources has proven to be the perfect backbone for Project Kuipur. As of this summer, Amazon had at least 500 employees working on the project, with many of them poached from top internet companies like Facebook.

When its full planned fleet numbered 3,236 satellites, Amazon said half of them would be operational by 2026. Meanwhile, Starlink already has more than 1,800 satellites in low orbit.

How altruistic is this, really? — Both Starlink and Amazon have been able to push their satellite plans through the FCC by touting them as being for the public good. In some sense, this is true, because both companies are bringing broadband access to people who otherwise would have little to no access to the internet.

We’d do well to remember that these are businesses, though. Their end goal is to make as much money as humanly possible. Any public good created by that pursuit is secondary.

Both projects could have a negative environmental impact that essentially negates that public good, too. The FCC has allowed both Starlink and Amazon to skirt around the usual environmental testing required for approval. We’ve nearly perfected the art of slinging satellites into space — which means space debris is accumulating more rapidly than ever. We’re sending these hunks of metal into the atmosphere with no real idea how they’ll affect the planet.

Amazon’s last FCC request came back with a unanimous yes. Barring some unforeseen roadblocks, we’d expect these 4,500 additional satellites to slide through the approval process without any friction at all. Yay for more space junk...