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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.

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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 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.

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Amazon plans first Kuiper satellite launches in 2022

Amazon plans to launch the first two prototype satellites for its Project Kuiper satellite broadband constellation by late 2022, using rockets currently being developed by ABL Space Systems.

The timeline for testing what’s slated to become a 3,236-satellite network in low Earth orbit was laid out today in an experimental license application filed with the Federal Communications Commission. It’s the first time that Amazon has specified launch dates in its multibillion-dollar effort to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink network, which is already in limited operation.

Amazon said the two prototype satellites — KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 — would serve as a testbed for technologies that it plans to use to offer broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the globe. The prototypes will also help the company validate procedures on the ground for operating and maintaining the full constellation.

The satellites are being developed at Amazon’s Project Kuiper headquarters in Redmond, Wash. — not far from where SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are built.

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Amazon and Verizon plan satellite cellular services

Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Verizon Communications say they’ll collaborate on connectivity solutions that capitalize on Kuiper’s future broadband satellite constellation as well as Verizon’s terrestrial 4G/LTE and 5G data networks.

The Amazon-Verizon partnership will focus on rural communities and other regions that are currently underserved when it comes to broadband data services, the two companies said today in a news release.

“There are billions of people without reliable broadband access, and no single company will close the digital divide on its own,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said. “Verizon is a leader in wireless technology and infrastructure, and we’re proud to be working together to explore bringing fast, reliable broadband to the customers and communities who need it most. We look forward to partnering with companies and organizations around the world who share this commitment.”

Last year, Amazon received the Federal Communications Commission’s conditional go-ahead to deploy 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across the globe from low Earth orbit, or LEO.

Amazon says it plans to invest more than $10 billion in Project Kuiper — and the company currently has more than 700 employees working on the project, most of them based in Redmond, Wash. Antennas for the ground terminals are being tested in Redmond and elsewhere, but the satellite design hasn’t yet been unveiled.

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Amazon fires back at SpaceX in satellite war of words

Amazon laid out out a laundry list of SpaceX’s regulatory tussles today in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission, marking the latest chapter in a bare-knuckles battle over broadband satellite constellations.

The letter — written by C. Andrew Keisner, lead counsel for Amazon’s multibillion-dollar Project Kuiper satellite project — argues that SpaceX has run roughshod over regulatory requirements, and that SpaceX lambastes anyone who seeks to call the company to account.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Keisner wrote.

This comes in response to SpaceX’s complaint last week that Amazon is “more than willing to use regulatory and legal processes to create obstacles designed to delay” its competitors.

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Elon Musk goads Jeff Bezos as space spat escalates

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has fired a fresh volley of tart tweets at Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, in the midst of a regulatory tussle over SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and Amazon’s competing Project Kuiper concept.

And this time, space lasers are involved.

The spark that lit Musk’s latest flame war came after SpaceX sought the Federal Communications Commission’s approval to amend plans for sending up tens of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global broadband service. The amendment would let SpaceX use its Starship mega-rocket, currently under development, to put its Gen2 satellites into an assortment of orbits.

In response, Amazon urged the FCC to turn back SpaceX’s request, saying that the amendment proposes “two mutually exclusive configurations” for the Starlink constellation and leaves too many details unsettled. And in response to thatSpaceX told the FCC that Amazon’s filing was “only the latest in its continuing efforts to slow down competition.”

SpaceX also complained that Amazon was neglecting to resolve the FCC’s concerns about Project Kuiper. The FCC gave conditional approval to Amazon’s plans more than a year ago — provided that the Kuiper satellites didn’t interfere with previously approved satellite systems, including Starlink. SpaceX noted that Amazon hasn’t yet filed documents showing how it planned to avoid interference and ensure safe satellite operations.

More than 1,700 first-generation Starlink satellites have already been launched in accordance with previous FCC approvals, and the internet service is currently in expanded beta testing.

The Starlink spat comes amid the backdrop of legal protests that Bezos’ other big brainchild, Blue Origin, has filed against NASA for awarding a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX. Because of Blue Origin’s lawsuit, NASA and SpaceX have suspended work to adapt Starship as the landing system for a crewed mission to the moon, which is currently set for as early as 2024. (That date seems increasingly unlikely, however, and not just because of the lawsuit.)

In today’s tweets, Musk touched on the FCC filings as well as the lunar lander dispute, referring to Bezos without mentioning him by name.

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Facebook’s satellite team switches over to Amazon

Facebook has struck a deal to have more than a dozen of its wireless internet experts move over to Amazon to work on its Project Kuiper satellite broadband network, The Information reported today.

An Amazon spokesperson told me that the report was accurate.

Such a deal represents another step in Amazon’s efforts to get its Kuiper operation up and running — and try to catch up with SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, which already has more than more than 1,600 satellites in orbit and is expanding its beta program.

Amazon has vowed to spend more than $10 billion to get Project Kuiper off the ground. Under the terms of an authorization order issued by the Federal Communications Commission last July, Amazon has to have half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation launched by mid-2026, and the rest by mid-2029.

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FCC clears SpaceX to shift Starlink satellite orbits

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to modify the planned orbits for future satellites in its Starlink broadband internet constellation — a move that SpaceX says will result in improved, safer operations but has faced resistance from Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other rivals.

After the FCC issued its 57-page order, Amazon said its concerns were adequately addressed by the conditions that the commission placed on its approval.

The FCC authorized SpaceX to lower the primary operational altitude for 2,814 of its satellites from an originally specified range of between 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers (684 to 746 miles) to a range between 540 and 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles). That’s in addition to 1,584 satellites previously cleared for the lower set of orbits.

SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit, and it’s in the process of expanding its beta testing program for Starlink’s satellite internet service. Sixty more satellites are due to be launched as early as Wednesday.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to offer global broadband access through a network that makes use of thousands more satellites. Those satellites are built at SpaceX’s growing facility in Redmond, Wash.

SpaceX says that the revised orbits should improve response times for the network — and that the lower orbits should make it easier to dispose of satellites once they’ve outlived their usefulness, by commanding them to take a fiery plunge through the atmosphere.

However, the newly authorized orbits come close to the 590- to 630-kilometer (367- to 391-mile) orbits that have been targeted for future satellites in Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, which also aims to provide global broadband internet access.