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Space startups get a cloud-based boost from Amazon

For the 10 startups participating this year in Amazon Web Services’ Space Accelerator program, the sky is not the limit.

One company is building the next generation of ultra-high-resolution satellites for Earth observation. Another startup is developing electric propulsion systems for spacecraft and satellites in low Earth orbit. And yet another venture is working on a new type of space capsule that could someday carry cargo and crew to the moon.

“This year’s finalists brought forward pioneering ideas that will draw valuable insights from the depths of the ocean floor to the surface of the moon, and nearly everything in between,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS for Aerospace and Satellite Solutions, said today in a blog post.

Today’s announcement about the Class of 2022 follows up on last year’s inaugural Space Accelerator program. Hundreds of startups applied to take part in the program’s second year, and AWS worked with the AlchemistX accelerator management program to select these 10 finalists.

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NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Boeing hires three giants to build its billion-dollar cloud

The billion-dollar competition to provide Boeing with cloud computing services is finished, and the winner is … a three-way split. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft are all getting a share of the business, Boeing announced today.

In a LinkedIn post, Susan Doniz, Boeing’s chief information officer and senior VP for information technology and data analytics, called it a “multi-cloud partnership.”

“This represents a significant investment in the digital tools that will empower Boeing’s next 100 years,” she wrote. “These partnerships strengthen our ability to test a system — or an aircraft — hundreds of times using digital twin technology before it is deployed.”

Doniz said that becoming more cloud-centric will provide Boeing with “global scalability and elasticity without having to predict, procure, maintain and pay for on-premises servers.” Financial details relating to the multi-cloud partnership were not disclosed.

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Amazon makes a huge deal for satellite launches

Amazon has secured as many as 83 launches on three types of heavy-lift rockets to put more than 1,500 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation over the course of five years.

If Amazon follows through on all the reservations announced today, the campaign would carry a multibillion-dollar price tag and arguably represent the space industry’s largest launch procurement for a single commercial project.

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said today in a news release. “This approach reduces risk associated with launch vehicle stand-downs and supports competitive long-term pricing for Amazon, producing cost savings that we can pass on to our customers.”

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to offer satellite broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved. The $10 billion project has been in the works for three years, and won the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead in 2020. But it’s considered far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, which is already available on a limited basis.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are currently working on Kuiper, and the project’s careers website lists more than 300 open positions.

Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices & Services, said Project Kuiper is making good progress. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” he said. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”

Twelve launch reservations have been made with Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Those launches would use Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is closing in on a first launch in 2023 or later. Amazon also has an option to buy up to 15 additional New Glenn launches.

Amazon has reserved another 38 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is due to have its first liftoff as early as this year. Those missions would be in addition to nine previously reserved launches on ULA’s existing Atlas V rockets.

New Glenn and Vulcan are designed to lift off from separate launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Arianespace has agreed to set aside 18 launches of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which is due to make its debut as early as this year at the European consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the launch contract with Amazon is “the largest we’ve ever signed.”

The FCC license requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026, and today Amazon said its procurement plan should meet that schedule. That translates to more than 1,618 satellites, potentially launched by the nine Atlas V rockets and the rockets mentioned today.

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Jeff Bezos’ ventures team up on space station effort

Amazon and its cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, say they’re joining forces with another company founded by Jeff Bezos to support the development of a commercial space station known as Orbital Reef.

Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is one of the leaders of the Orbital Reef project, along with Colorado-based Sierra Space. Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering and Arizona State University are also part of the consortium.

Last December, Orbital Reef won a $130 million award from NASA to move ahead with the design of an orbital outpost that could fill the gap when the International Space Station is retired in the 2030-2031 time frame. Two other teams — led by Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman — also won NASA funding to flesh out their space station concepts.

In a blog posting, AWS said it would provide services and technology tools to support Orbital Reef’s development from the engineering design phase to on-orbit networking and operations. Amazon would contribute its expertise in logistics to streamline delivery and inventory management of space station supplies.

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Where’s my jetpack? Check Amazon’s MARS meeting

Billionaire Jeff Bezos missed out on his usual chauffeuring duties at the West Texas launch orchestrated today by his Blue Origin space venture, but he had a good excuse: He was presiding over Amazon’s MARS 2022, an invitation-only conference held this week in California.

His successor as Amazon’s CEO, Andy Jassy, was there as well.

The hush-hush MARS conference had its first annual run back in 2016, and spawned a public event called re:MARS in 2019. The acronym stands for Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space — and it also evokes Bezos’ long-term goal of having millions of people living and working in space.

MARS is an opportunity for the compu-cognoscenti to rub elbows (but our invitation must have gotten lost in the mail … again). It’s also a photo opportunity for Bezos: Who can forget the shots of “Buff Bezos” striding alongside a robo-dog, or Bezos at the controls of a giant robot, or trying out a hexacopter?

The 2020 and 2021 conferences had to be called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, but based on the tweets and Instagram posts emanating from this year’s site in Ojai, Calif., MARS was back in full force in 2022.

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Amazon teams up with Brazil’s space agency

Amazon Web Services and the Brazilian Space Agency are joining forces to support long-term growth of the space industry in Latin America’s largest country.

The statement of strategic intent and cooperation, signed by AWS and the space agency (known in Portuguese as the Agência Espacial Brasileira, or AEB), follows similar agreements that Amazon has made with Greece and Singapore.

But Brazil is a higher-profile case: Last year, Brazilian space and defense officials announced that Virgin Orbit would conduct orbital launches from the country’s Alcântara Space Center. Brazil is also a participant in the International Space Station program, and it has signed onto NASA’s Artemis Accords for moon exploration.

“The Brazilian government is on the hook to help provide capability for Artemis,” Peter Marquez, AWS’ head of space policy, told me. “We would love to help in those traditional areas, but in addition to that, the journey of getting to the moon, as well as building up other capabilities in Brazil, presents the opportunity to further grow the Brazilian space community commercially.”

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Astronomers set up center to save the sky from satellites

The International Astronomical Union is heading up the creation of a new center to deal with the complications created by broadband satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

The IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky From Satellite Constellation Interference will be co-hosted at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Arizona and the SKA Observatory’s offices at Jodrell Bank in Britain.

“The new center is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen said today in a news release.

Former IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, the center’s director, said the memorandum of understanding creating the center was signed just a day earlier, and a website for the project hasn’t yet been established.

But the University of Washington’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, or DIRAC, is already getting a head start on one of the center’s missions — cataloging astronomical images with satellite streaks so they can be made available for analysis.

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Amazon’s Alexa will ride on NASA’s Orion moon ship

Alexa, when are we arriving at the moon?

Putting Amazon’s AI-enabled voice assistant on a moon-bound spaceship may sound like science fiction (hello, HAL!). But it’s due to become science fact later this year when a radiation-hardened console rides along in NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule for the Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission.

There’ll be no humans aboard for the test flight, which will mark the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Instead, Alexa’s voice, and Echo’s pulsing blue ring, will be interacting with operators at Houston’s Mission Control for a technology demonstration created by Lockheed Martin, Amazon and Cisco.

The project is known as Callisto — a name that pays tribute to the mythological nymph who was a follower of the Greek goddess Artemis.

“Callisto will demonstrate a first-of-its-kind technology that could be used in the future to enable astronauts to be more self-reliant as they explore deep space,” Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of commercial civil space, said in a news release.

Including Alexa on the mission is particularly meaningful for Aaron Rubenson, vice president of Amazon Alexa. “The Star Trek computer was actually a key part of the original inspiration for Alexa — this notion of an ambient intelligence that is there when you need it … but then also fades into the background when you don’t need it,” he said during a teleconference.

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Amazon shows how satellites can fill broadband gaps

Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t yet launched a single satellite, but in a video released this week, it’s talking up what its broadband internet constellation will be able to do for rural connectivity.

The video focuses on unmet broadband needs in Cle Elum (pop. 2,037), a town nestled in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.

“Quite a few people move out to this area because it’s gorgeous, but people are reluctant to open small businesses due to the lack of reliable internet,” Audrey Malek, founding partner of Basecamp Outfitters, says on camera.

The solution — at least according to MiMi Aung, senior manager at Project Kuiper — is the 3,236-satellite constellation that her team is planning to start testing in orbit as early as next year.

“Even just right here in our backyard, right outside Redmond, there are areas where there is no internet connection, or extraordinarily poor connection, and we can make a huge impact right away,” said Aung, who came to Amazon from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she headed up the team behind the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.