Amazon launches two test satellites, initiating star wars with Elon Musk
Star wars: The ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the Protoflight mission for Amazon's Project Kuiper lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:06pm EDT on October 6. The rivalry between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is also expected to take off.
Two test satellites blasted off on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket emblazoned with Amazon’s famous logo on Friday, ahead of more than 3,200 planned to orbit the Earth to directly challenge Elon Musk’s reign over space broadband real estate.
Signaling the start of the Project Kuiper network, Jeff Bezos and his e-commerce giant Amazon launched the two preliminary satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday, October 6. The satellites, Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2, will orbit 311 miles (500 km) above the Earth’s surface and undergo a series of tests and deployments to establish internet connections to a terminal on the ground.
Project Kuiper is expected to launch proper before the end of 2024, with internet on offer to some customers by then, and Amazon plans to overall have 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). According to the company’s conditional licence with the US Federal Communications Commission, it must have at least half of its satellites in orbit by mid-2026.
“The launch today started a new phase of our Protoflight mission, and there’s a long way to go, but it’s an exciting milestone all the same,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, on Friday. “I’m tremendously grateful to the Project Kuiper team for their dedication in getting us to this point, and to our partners at United Launch Alliance who helped us deploy our first spacecraft ever into orbit.”
For context, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched around 5,000 satellites so far, which provide a vast network for its Starlink broadband. OneWeb, owned by the UK government, has almost 650 satellites in orbit.
It’s more than five years since SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into LEO in May 2019. Musk has said he plans on a network that eventually spans 42,000 telecommunications spacecraft.
With some ground to make up, Amazon has secured 77 heavy-lift launches from Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA, with additional Blue Origin – which is, of course, owned by Bezos – launches available. And while the company, much like Starlink, says it is determined to limit orbital debris and the visibility of satellites, astronomers continue to sound the alarm about these artificial constellations and their widespread interference.
“Large constellations are altering the appearance of the night sky,” scientists tabled at the Astronomy and Satellite Constellations: Pathways Forward symposium in Spain last week. “Satellites and debris high above the Earth reflect sunlight to the night side of the planet, which makes them visible as moving points of light. These visible objects can disrupt navigational practices of traditional nighttime wayfinders. Swarms of satellites may interfere with the cultural and religious practices of some people. And they are an unwelcome intrusion for casual stargazers and all who love the tranquility of dark and quiet nights.”
While astronomers in general are not against the technological advancements, which are likely to provide the world with the kind of internet access that has been limited to wealthier countries, many are calling for better collaboration to solve the problems.
“Risks to both the night sky and near-Earth space are great unless these resources are carefully managed,” the symposium panel presented. “Yet there are few national or international laws or regulations that put meaningful limits on the acceptable amount of harm that satellites can cause to the night sky.”
The battle for space real estate could also see the fight between these two feuding billionaires light up. But if Bezo’s new venture is successful, Amazon’s satellite service could be a big boost for its boss, whose current US$150-billion fortune now 'pales' in comparison to Musk’s estimated $239 billion.