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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.

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Microsoft and SpaceX ramp up satellite cloud access

With SpaceX’s help, Microsoft is taking the next step toward merging cloud computing with available-anywhere satellite connectivity.

Today Microsoft announced the start of a private preview for Azure Orbital Cloud Access, which lets users link up with the cloud in a single hop from virtually anywhere via SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.

For now, the preview is limited to Microsoft Azure’s government customers. But Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft strategic missions and technologies, said “we are currently working toward general availability and commercial expansion.”

“That timeline will be determined by the evolution of our work with our private preview customers and customer feedback,” Zander told GeekWire in an emailed response to questions.

Today’s announcement, timed to coincide with the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, comes nearly two years after Microsoft announced that it was teaming up with SpaceX on satellite cloud access.

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SpaceX will build new satellites to boost T-Mobile’s signal

T-Mobile subscribers will be getting a satellite upgrade to their wireless service, thanks to a newly announced partnership that takes advantage of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

But don’t expect to start streaming high-definition videos via satellite to your T-Mobile connected devices immediately: The beta version of Starlink’s broadband boost is due to roll out in select areas by the end of next year, after a series of SpaceX satellite launches.

That rollout will begin with text messaging, including SMS, MMS and messaging apps. Voice and data coverage will come later.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out the details behind the deal today during a live presentation at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas.

Sievert said the partnership calls for creating a new network, composed of Starlink satellites that can use T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. He said the vast majority of smartphones already on its network would be compatible with the new satellite-plus-cellular service.

“You can connect with your existing phone,” Sievert promised. He said he expected to include the Starlink-enabled service free with T-Mobile’s most popular plans. With less popular plans, a monthly fee might be charged, he said.

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T-Mobile and SpaceX strike Starlink connectivity deal

The CEOs of SpaceX and T-Mobile will join forces to reveal how their companies will work together to increase wireless connectivity.

Details about the announcement, set to be live-streamed at 7 p.m. CT (5 p.m. PT) Aug. 25 from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas, haven’t been made public. But the plan seems likely to involve using SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and T-Mobile’s cellular network to boost subscribers’ access and both companies’ fortunes.

“This is something special,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet.

Mike Sievert, the CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile, will join Musk for the presentation on YouTube.

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Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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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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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.