Satellite-delivered broadband internet is now more closely linked with SpaceX than Amazon, thanks to the success of Starlink. About 1,800 operational satellites have already been deployed into orbit, and the company has extended its service area to 25 nations (and 145,000 consumers) since it started beta testing in 2013. SpaceX has already begun discussing an IPO of Starlink’s subsidiary since the company has made significant progress toward its aims.
As a result of this lack of satellites, Amazon expects to launch only two this year. Even though it is far behind SpaceX, Amazon has not given up on the idea of competing.
KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, Amazon’s first two broadband satellites, will be launched in the fourth quarter of 2022. There will be no internet access aboard these first two satellites, even though they have “custom-designed modems, power and propulsion systems, and parabolic antennas.” Amazon, on the other hand, claims it will only use them to “test the communications and networking technologies that will be included in our final satellite design, and assist us verify launch operations and mission management processes”
Deorbiting both satellites and allowing them to disintegrate in the Earth’s atmosphere will be completed after this task is completed.
A strange way to go to the stars
The question remains, though, how Amazon intends to launch KuiperSat-1 and 2 into orbit.
The irony is not lost on me. With the help of its creator Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, the space business has suggested developing a massive, orbital-class rocket dubbed the New Glenn, which would be excellent for launching Amazon’s satellites into space. New Glenn was completely absent from Amazon’s latest statement. Rather, Amazon claims it will employ ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rockets.
The fact that ABL Space, like Blue Origin, has never launched a rocket into space is intriguing. Indeed, ABL is slated to undertake its maiden orbital launch later this year, much as Blue Origin. (When you consider that Blue Origin has completed many suborbital flight tests, you might even argue that Blue Origin is closer to orbital spaceflight than ABL.)
Yet Amazon has chosen ABL over Blue Origin not just to launch its satellites into orbit, but also to build “a long-term partnership together” with the company. That was very cool.
SpaceX has a long head start on Amazon
In light of how far ahead SpaceX Starlink now stands in comparison to Project Kuiper, and how little faith Amazon seems to have in Blue Origin’s capacity to launch its KuiperSats into orbit, I am beginning to wonder whether Project Kuiper is nothing more than a fantasy.
An ABL rocket instead of Blue Origin New Glenn is the first thing that causes me doubt. The difficulties that Blue Origin has had in completing the development of their BE-4 rocket engine (which will power New Glenn) are well-known at this time. Because of this, it is possible that BE-4 is considerably more behind schedule than previously thought, given Amazon’s choice to utilize ABL’s rocket instead of waiting for one from Blue Origin.
Project Kuiper’s deployment will be complicated if Amazon is unable to rely on Blue Origin’s rockets. See, in 2019, Amazon informed the Federal Communications Commission that the construction of Project Kuiper and the orbiting of its planned 3,236 satellites would cost “more than $10 billion.” Amazon is right. A similar comparison may be drawn between NASA and SpaceX, both of whom are planning to spend “as much as” tens of billions of dollars on their respective space programs.
What gives? For the record, SpaceX launches its Starlink satellites into space on SpaceX rockets. As a result, one part of SpaceX’s operation is subsidizing the other. As a result, Amazon has to contract another company to launch its satellites at a greater cost than if it could utilize Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets to launch Project Kuiper.
To put it another way, if Project Kuiper ever gets off the ground, SpaceX will have an overwhelming financial advantage over its competitor, giving Starlink an edge in profit margins and perhaps dooming Project Kuiper as a whole.
Sadly, it seems that Amazon has already been eliminated from the competition for space.