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FCC plans to boost satellite connections to smartphones

The Federal Communications Commission plans to set up a new regulatory framework for facilitate hookups between satellite operators and wireless companies, with the objective of connecting smartphone users in remote or underserved areas of the world.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, adopted today, follows up on a string of demonstrations and announcements related to satellite-cellular combinations.

A Virginia-based company called Lynk Global has already shown that its satellite-to-smartphone system works, with the FCC’s blessing. Another satellite venture called AST Spacemobile is setting up partnerships with telecom providers around the world. The heavyweights of the telecom industry are in on the idea as well.

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Amazon shows off antennas for Kuiper satellite network

After years of development, Amazon is showing off the antennas it plans to use for its Project Kuiper satellite broadband network — and says it plans to begin offering beta service for large customers next year.

The largest antenna, for enterprise customers, is about the size of a café table. The antenna designed for home use is as big as an LP record’s album sleeve and should cost around $400 to make. The smallest antenna, still under development, is just a little bigger than an ebook reader.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t contrast it to a Kindle here,” said Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, who helpfully made the comparison today during the big reveal at the Satellite 2023 conference in Washington, D.C.

Amazon hasn’t yet launched any of the 3,236 satellites for the constellation it plans to operate in low Earth orbit — and it’s far behind SpaceX, which says it already has more than a million customers for its Starlink broadband service. But Limp insisted that Amazon was in position to make rapid progress over the next year.

He noted that the first two prototype Kuiper satellites have just been shipped to Florida, in preparation for launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket this spring. And he said multiple satellites should be ready for liftoff by next year. The Kuiper operation is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. — not far from SpaceX’s satellite factory — and Amazon plans to start mass-producing satellites at a factory in Kirkland, Wash., by the end of the year.

Limp said Amazon was on track to launch half of the satellites for the Kuiper constellation by mid-2026, using up to 77 medium- to heavy-lift rockets it’s reserved at ULA as well as at Arianespace and Blue Origin. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns Blue Origin as a separate, privately held space venture.) “For sure we will be beta-testing with large customers in ’24,” Limp said.

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Plans for satellite networks move ahead on multiple fronts

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp. says it has completed its first shipment of electronically steered flat-panel antennas to OneWeb for that company’s satellite-based data network.

In a news release timed to coincide with the Satellite 2023 conference in Washington, D.C., Kymeta said its Hawk u8 terminal will be available for OneWeb’s fixed-location applications, and will soon be available for land-based and sea-based mobile communications. OneWeb is putting the finishing touches on its constellation in low Earth orbit, or LEO, and is planning to ramp up commercial broadband service within a few months.

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Microsoft backs effort to extend fiber internet in Africa

Microsoft says it’s partnering with a fiber-cable connectivity venture called Liquid Intelligent Technologies to bring high-speed internet access to an additional 20 million people in Africa by 2025.

The collaboration is part of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, which aims to help extend broadband coverage to 250 million people living in unserved and underserved areas of the world, including 100 million people in Africa.

Microsoft President Brad Smith announced the partnership with Liquid in advance of the Fifth U.N. Conference on the Least Developed Countries, which gets underway next week in Doha, Qatar. Microsoft will co-chair the meeting’s Private Sector Forum.

“The private sector can plan an important role in creating opportunities for the 880 million people living in LDCs [least developed countries], where only 36% of the population uses the internet today, and it’s important for Microsoft to do its part,” Smith said in a blog posting.

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Study documents satellite interference with Hubble

An analysis of more than 100,000 images from the Hubble Space Telescope, conducted with the aid of artificial intelligence and hundreds of human volunteers, confirms that satellites including SpaceX’s Starlink spacecraft are increasingly interfering with astronomical observations.

The images used in the study, which is the subject of a paper published today by Nature Astronomy, largely predate the deployment of Starlink broadband internet satellites. But the trend line suggests that more and more satellites will cause more and more interference.

“This is an attempt to define a baseline before the swarm of artificial satellites for future follow-up studies of the impact of megaconstellations on space-based astronomy,” said the research team, which is led by Sandor Kruk of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

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FCC clears Amazon’s satellite maintenance plan

The Federal Communications Commission says Amazon’s 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation is fully cleared for deployment after the company filed an acceptable plan for dealing with the risks of orbital debris.

This week’s order follows up on the conditional approval that the FCC issued in 2020. At the time, the FCC said the plans for Kuiper could proceed, but Amazon had to update its orbital debris mitigation plan to address concerns about collision risks, coordination with other satellite systems, and procedures for satellite disposal.

After a back-and-forth with the Kuiper team and its rivals at SpaceX and Viasat, as well as interested parties at NASA and other federal agencies, the FCC it was satisfied with Amazon’s modifications.

“Our action will allow Kuiper to begin deployment of its constellation in order to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to customers around the world,” the agency said in the order it adopted Feb. 8.

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Microsoft and Viasat boost satellite internet links

Over the past five years, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has helped bring internet access to more than 51 million people in rural America and around the world — and now a new partnership with Viasat aims to kick Airband into overdrive.

The partnership, announced today in conjunction with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., will take advantage of Viasat’s satellite network to extend internet access to 10 million people globally, including 5 million in Africa. It’s part of a wider Airband campaign to help connect a quarter of a billion people, including 100 million in Africa, by the end of 2025.

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Microsoft and Amazon join Pentagon networking effort

Microsoft Azure SpaceAmazon Web Services and Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite network are now among the Pentagon’s partners in a campaign to upgrade space- and ground-based communications infrastructure for national security purposes.

The Defense Innovation Unit has awarded contracts to those three Seattle-area business units — plus SpiderOak Mission Systems, a space cybersecurity venture based in Washington, D.C. — in the second phase of the Hybrid Space Architecture project. They join four awardees from the first phase: Aalyria, Anduril, Atlas and Enveil.

“Hybrid Space Architecture ventures into an experimental communications vision that connects users from around the globe using modern and future communications,” Steve Butow, director of DIU’s space portfolio, said today in a news release. “The additional four awards from this solicitation provide new capabilities while seamlessly integrating into this dynamic and innovative collective of information and networking infrastructure that will provide resilient communications, and future technologies access, worldwide and beyond.”

The focus of the Phase I effort was to create a “Hybrid Gateway Satellite” to prove out next-generation networking technologies. Phase II is aimed at expanding the operational network to link ground-based cloud and internet services with commercial satellite constellations to facilitate secure communications via a hybrid public-private network.

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Amazon readies factory to build Project Kuiper satellites

Amazon says it’ll open a 172,000-square-foot production facility in Kirkland, Wash., to manufacture thousands of satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

The factory will eventually turn out one to three satellites per day, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services, said today during a Washington Post online chat. “Maybe even a little more than that,” he added.

Eventually, Amazon plans to have 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit, and half of those spacecraft have to be launched by 2026 to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission’s license requirements.

In order to meet that schedule, “we have to build the manufacturing capabilities that look more like consumer electronics or automobiles and less like the traditional space industry,” Limp explained.

The new facility marks an expansion from Project Kuiper’s 219,000-square-foot research-and-development facility in Redmond, Wash. Limp said the “first phase” of satellite production is already underway in Redmond.

“We’ve started integration and final assembly of our first two prototype satellites,” he said. “Those should be done by the end of Q4, and we’re in test right now.”

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Amazon switches its first satellites to a new rocket

The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet network are now due to launch on the first-ever flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket early next year, rather than on ABL Space Systems’ rocket.

Today’s announcement comes in the wake of schedule slips for ABL as well as for United Launch Alliance — slips that mean ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule lines up better with Amazon’s satellite deployment schedule.

The prototypes — known as Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 — are designed to test how the different components of a full 3,236-satellite constellation will work together. Results of the test will help Amazon refine its design for the production satellites.

“Our prototype satellites will be ready this year, and we look forward to flying with ULA,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, said today in an Amazon update.

The original plan called for the Kuipersats to launch this year on one of the first flights of ABL’s RS1 rocket — but California-based ABL ran into delays in its test program, resulting in schedule shifts. And this week, ULA said it would delay the debut of its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket at the request of its primary payload customer, Astrobotic.

ULA said Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic asked for more time to finish work on its Peregrine lunar lander, which was chosen to fly to the moon as the first mission for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The launch had been set for late 2022, but it’s now planned for the first quarter of 2023. The Kuipersats will be sent into low Earth orbit as secondary payloads.