Amazon launches two Kuiper satellite prototypes

Project Kuiper makes first contact with prototype satellites
Sheila Zabeu -

October 09, 2023

On October 6th, Amazon launched a rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida (USA), carrying two prototype satellites from the Kuiper project, more than four years after announcing the plan to invest in the creation of a constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to provide a global network for satellite Internet access.

The mission’s operations center in Redmond, Washington, has already made first contact with KuiperSat-2, establishing a telemetry link for the first time. This contact is one of several steps in the mission that aims to transfer data on satellite conditions and establish more regular communication flows.

“Today’s launch kicked off a new phase of our Protoflight mission, and there’s a long way to go, but it’s still an exciting milestone,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper.

According to Amazon, this mission is an important learning opportunity for the team. A series of tests will aggregate data from the world of space and years of data collected in laboratory and field tests, with more information about the performance of the Kuiper project network on the ground and in space.

“We have carried out extensive testing in our laboratory and have a high degree of confidence in the design of our satellites, but there was nothing about in-orbit testing. This is the first time Amazon has put satellites in space, and we will learn a lot regardless of how the mission unfolds,” adds Badyal.

Amazon aims to launch more than 3,200 satellites over the next six years, with broadband service beginning as soon as there are 578 satellites in orbit. The company is expected to invest more than US$10 billion in the project.

The Kuiper project is based on three main elements: advanced broadband LEO satellites, small and affordable terminals, and a terrestrial communications network. The Protoflight mission will test all three parts, along with the teams and systems that manage them.

Last March, Amazon presented three models of terminals. With these low-cost antennas, the company plans to serve tens of millions of customers. The ambitious goal is to have a terminal that costs less than US$500 to build, using a smaller and lighter architecture than traditional designs.

These terminals use a chip designed by Amazon itself, codenamed Prometheus, which combines the processing power of 5G cards, the resources of a cellular base station and the capacity of a microwave backhaul antenna to support point-to-point connections. Prometheus is also used in the Kuiper project’s own satellites and ground antennas, and can process up to 1 terabit per second (Tbps) of traffic at the edges of each satellite, according to Amazon.

Competitors in space

On October 9, SpaceX launched, from the Vandenberg Space Force base in California, another 21 satellites to add to its Starlink constellation. SpaceX already offers services in dozens of countries on every continent, with more than 4,000 functional satellites in orbit. Just as a comparison, OneWeb, one of the closest competitors to SpaceX‘s position, whose main sponsors are the UK government, Bharti Enterprises from India and Eutelsat from France, has around 600 satellites, a much smaller number than the from Starlink.

In yet another recent movement in the satellite services market, at the end of September, the completion of the merger between Eutelsat, founded in 1977, and OneWeb, created in 2012, was announced to form the Eutelsat Group. With a fleet of 37 geostationary (GEO) satellites and a LEO constellation of over 600 satellites serving broadcasters, media service providers, telecommunications operators, ISPs and government agencies, the Eutelsat Group is the world’s first satellite operator with an integrated system of GEO and LEO infrastructures.

According to the newly formed group’s announcement, the integrated fleet will combine the network density and high performance of Eutelsat’s solutions with the low latency and ubiquity of OneWeb’s LEO constellation to deliver fully integrated, worldwide connectivity services. Foxconn has also announced plans to launch a Taiwan-made LEO satellite next year. The satellite should weigh around 12 kilograms and will complete an Earth orbit at an altitude of 550 kilometers, 15 times a day, according to the company. Last August, during a conference call with investors about the second quarter financial results, the president of Foxconn announced a strategic partnership with Microsoft  in the low Earth orbit satellite sector. The objective is to create a spatial Internet solution, aimed at three main applications: Internet for vehicles, smart cities and Beyond 5G (B5G) communication infrastructure.