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.
"We've invented lots of new technology to meet our cost and performance targets for Project Kuiper. All of the systems are testing well in simulated and lab settings, and we'll soon be ready to see how they perform in space, " Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, said in a blog posting. "There is no substitute for on-orbit testing, and we expect to learn a lot given the complexity and risk of operating in such a challenging environment. We can't wait to get started."
SpaceX went through a similar prototyping exercise back in 2018 when Badyal was in charge of the Starlink project. Within the year that followed, Badyal and at least one of his Starlink teammates were let go by SpaceX and switched over to Amazon.
Back in April, Amazon reserved nine launches on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets to put its operational satellites in orbit, but ABL Space Systems' significantly smaller RS1 launch vehicles will be used for the prototypes. Financial terms of the deal weren't announced, but the list price for an RS1 launch is $12 million.
Although El Segundo, Calif.-based ABL hasn't yet launched anything, ABL President Dan Piemont told GeekWire in an email that the company is working toward sending two L2 Aerospace satellites into orbit from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska's Kodiak Island by mid-December. "We have a small army up there setting up the launch pad and hangar through gnarly weather conditions," Piemont wrote.
After that initial launch, ABL is due to conduct an aerospike demonstration for the Air Force Research Laboratory, the first of a series of launches for Lockheed Martin and the first-ever satellite launch from British soil for the U.K. Space Agency. ABL's launch system makes use of a containerized, deployable ground system that can be shipped to a wide range of launch sites. The Project Kuiper satellites would be launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Amazon said it's been working closely with the ABL team for several months and has completed two integration design reviews, including plans for a novel adapter design. An initial fit check is due to be conducted early next year.
"Kuiper's mission to bring high-speed, low-latency broadband service to underserved communities is highly motivating for our team here at ABL," CEO Harry O'Hanley, a former SpaceX engineer, said in today's news release. "Amazon will play a central role in the next generation of space infrastructure, and we're proud to have been selected as their launch partner for these critical early flights."
The plan filed with the FCC for a two-year experimental license calls for two separate launches to send the two prototype satellites into 367-mile-high (590-kilometer-high) orbits by the end of 2022. The main communications link would be a ground station in McCulloch, Texas, and two other facilities would keep track of the satellites from unspecified sites in South America and the Asia-Pacific region.
Amazon would test the Kuiper Ka-band communication system during passes over McCulloch, for a maximum of six minutes during each pass. Kuiper's customer terminals, which have been developed primarily in Redmond, would also undergo testing at the McCulloch facility.
One of the prototype satellites would be equipped with a sunshade to determine whether that technology will work for reducing reflectivity and mitigating the satellites' impact on ground-based astronomical observations. "We will collect data to compare reflectivity between the two spacecraft, and share any learnings with the astronomy community following the mission," Amazon said.
When their mission ends, the satellites' propulsion systems would send them down to burn up during atmospheric re-entry, Amazon said. And if propulsive deorbit is unsuccessful, the satellites are designed to deorbit themselves passively after about three and a half years.
In last year's authorization for the Kuiper constellation, the FCC said its go-ahead was conditioned on Amazon's assurance that its satellites would not interfere with other constellations that have already been approved, and Amazon said it would make sure its tests don't interfere with authorized operations.
The FCC authorization requires Amazon to put half of its 3,236-satellite constellation into orbit by mid-2026, and the rest by 2029. Amazon has suggested that it could begin commercial service even before 2026, once the count reaches 578 satellites.
In any case, Amazon is still far behind SpaceX's Starlink service, which has more than 1,650 satellites in orbit already; and the British-Indian OneWeb venture, which has launched 358 satellites and aims to begin satellite broadband service to Arctic regions as early as this winter, as an initial step toward global availability.
Amazon said it has 750 people working on Project Kuiper and plans to add hundreds more to the team in the year ahead. The project's job website currently lists 230 open positions. And for what it's worth, Project Kuiper is separate from Blue Origin, the privately held space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
This story first appeared on GeekWire.