Amazon lines up dozens of launches to put thousands of Kuiper satellites in orbit

Amazon is finally taking decisive action on its Kuiper communications satellite constellation, securing the rights to as many as 83 launches from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and of course Blue Origin. Interestingly, none of the launch vehicles set to be used have flown before — but there’s plenty of time to change that as Amazon’s 3,236-strong constellation takes shape.

Announced during the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, the contracts have no fixed value associated with them, and an Amazon representative declined to provide any kind of ballpark. The company said that it has secured, or perhaps pre-ordered, 18 Ariane 6 vehicles (the company’s largest contract ever), 12 New Glenns from Blue Origin, and 38 Vulcan Centaurs from ULA. There is an option to purchase additional New Glenns, and an existing contract for 9 Atlas Vs from ULA.

A back-of-napkin calculation puts the lower bound of the value of this new deal at around $10 billion, though of course this is only one part of a much larger operation (and depends heavily on launch costs, which are continually in flux). The estimate simply shows that Amazon is ready to make commitments at the 11-digit scale to get things moving.

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” said Kuiper VP of technology Rajeev Badyal in the Amazon press release. And indeed, they have said as much for some time. “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. These large, heavy-lift rockets also mean we can deploy more of our constellation with fewer launches, helping simplify our launch and deployment schedule.”

Amazon declined to provide any timing or logistical details, but a press event is scheduled for later this morning at Space Symposium. I will update this story with more information if anything substantial is provided on the record.

A notable absence from the list of launch providers is SpaceX, a natural enough omission given the intense yet largely unacknowledged rivalry between it and the Bezos-backed Blue Origin. SpaceX launched its Starlink satellites on its own Falcon 9 rockets, and Kuiper and its partners seem eager to show that there are cost-effective alternatives out there.

The fact that not one of these launch vehicles has taken a payload to orbit doesn’t seem to have given Amazon much pause. The Ariane 6 is perhaps the closest to launch readiness and is set to fly this year. The Vulcan Centaur may be close behind, but it’s relying on the BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, which have yet to materialize. It’s hard to say when New Glenn will be ready, as Blue Origin has been rather quiet about its development and testing. Amazon did note that it has contracted the Swiss company Beyond Gravity to build the satellite dispensers that will ultimately send Kuiper hardware on its way.

The next immediate milestone for the project won’t be a full-scale launch, however, but a small-scale test of prototype satellites to verify the work they’ve been doing on the surface and in simulators. Those will go up late in 2022 aboard ABL Space Systems RS1 rockets.

After that, it’s likely that the Atlas Vs will be used first to put the first few batches into orbit and do a bit of a shake out of the deployment and activation process with production satellites. Then the cadence can increase as other launch providers get to flight proven status and come on board.

Lynk demos global satellite connection for ordinary phones and prepares for commercial launch

The days of “no signal” may be behind us with the advent of Lynk’s satellite network that lets any modern phone exchange data directly with a satellite overhead, no special antenna or chip required. The company just demonstrated a two-way data link this week and announced its first network partners in Africa and the Bahamas — if everything goes well it may not be long before you can get a signal anywhere in the world.

Formerly known as Ubiquitilink, Lynk has been working up to this stage for years, with former Nanoracks founder Charles Miller at the helm. They emerged from stealth early in 2019 to explain that they had launched several test satellites to show that their theory that an ordinary phone could connect to a satellite in low Earth orbit. Early tests demonstrated they could counteract the noise, doppler shift, and other factors that prompted some experts to call the task impossible, and in 2020 they sent the first ordinary SMS directly from a satellite to a normal phone.

That in itself would have been a remarkable and useful capability to provide to governments and network providers. In emergencies, such as after natural disasters or during blackouts, ordinary mobile networks can’t be relied on to get important messages to affected regions. Lynk showed that a satellite could hit an entire city with an evacuation or shelter in place message, and indeed that may be one way the tech is used in the future.

But it wasn’t until last week that the company demonstrated a two-way connection between a phone and a satellite (their fifth, “Shannon”), allowing someone on the surface with no special equipment to, if there’s a Lynk satellite overhead, both receive and send data. Not a lot of data, of course — but more than enough for an SMS, a GPS location, a weather report, or the like. (Higher datarates will come later as more of the constellation goes up.)

“We have repeatedly demonstrated the two-way call flow required for a phone to connect to our cell tower in space,” said Miller in a press release. “This two-way call flow involves multiple instances of uplink and downlink signaling, including a device request for channel access, and then the corresponding authentication and location update procedures. To date, we’ve done this with hundreds of phones, and counting, in the UK, the Bahamas, and the US. This has never been proven before with a satellite cell tower and Lynk has done it.”

To say it’s a game changer is something of an understatement. Once Lynk puts a few more satellites in orbit, it could cover a good deal of the planet in signal — a narrow and intermittent signal, to be sure, but that’s way better than nothing if you break your ankle while hiking in the backcountry or want to assure your family you’re okay after a hurricane knocks out power in your city.

Image Credits: Lynk

“The ability to send a text message, anytime and anywhere is the foundation of all safety. If you can send a message to a friend, family member, or neighbor, that can be life saving,” Miller told me. “You might not even want it, but your wife or husband wants it so they don’t have to worry. People are buying peace of mind.”

The first priority, he said, is to make emergency services available to as many people as possible. A 911 call may not be possible yet, but an SOS message containing basic information and coordinates certainly would be, and this service is something that he wants to make sure is offered at zero or minimal cost, though it’s not entirely up to them. But anything associated with an official emergency service would be free.

Ordinary messaging would work just like you have signal: either you can send live when the satellite is overhead, or you can put it in the outbox or send queue to be sent out when the space-based network bar appears.

The company plans to offer a free demonstration app that can deliver a weather report for your location anywhere in the world, no matter what, and Miller said they’d be happy to work with phone or app makers to integrate it with their OS or service.

Amazingly, access will require almost nothing whatsoever from the consumer. When the satellite is available, it will contact your phone just like any other carrier’s cell towers, since it really is one of those that just happens to be in orbit. Your phone is always aware of the various networks around it other than the one you’re using — there’s a constant interplay in the background as different towers are queried and your signal handed off to one or another, or re-registering on the network for whatever reason. You will have to authorize it one way or another, but there will be an app to help with that, as well as agreements among the networks.

As to that, the company is partnering first with Aliv in the Bahamas and Telecel Centrafrique in the Central African Republic. Miller said they are in talks with networks in dozens of countries, including the US, but these small scale deployments are a first step — and the people there really need it. Rural central Africa and remote islands in the Bahamas may not have much in common, but one thing they do is large areas with spotty signal.

Whatever the carrier decides to charge, Lynk gets a share of that, and Miller said they’re leaving that up to networks to decide: “People will pay a reasonable price per message. If you can charge 5, 10, 20 cents per message at the beginning, we’ll let our partners decide, people will pay for it.” Over time, as the service is more widespread and cheaper for Lynk to provide, the price will (presumably) drop.

Naturally the idea of constant connectivity may clash with the idea many have of privacy. But Miller emphasized that they have no interest in customer data. “You’re our customer, not our product. We’re not interested — it would be very dangerous,” he said. With the significant exception of 911 calls or SOS messages being a tacit request to provide one’s location, he said they’re deliberately building to avoid this kind of conflict.

The company is in talks with dozens of network operators around the world, but regulatory and market questions remain in many places, such as the U.S., where the FCC will need to weigh in. But Miller feels certain they’re on their way to becoming a major part of the global communications infrastructure.

“The smartphone in your pocket is like a superpower, it magnifies your abilities as a human being,” Miller said. “But your superpower is broken when you’re not connected. We solve that problem.”

Astronomers fret over ‘debilitating threat’ of thousands of satellites cluttering the sky

The promise of today’s nascent communications satellite constellations is real: connecting everyone on the globe, no exceptions. But the dark side, or rather bright side, of these satellites threatens to pollute the sky with innumerable points of moving light. Astronomers warn that this may pose a “debilitating threat” if not addressed by regulators or industry.

The International Astronomical Union, a group of over ten thousand astronomers and researchers all over the world, issued a statement this week politely but firmly pointing out the risks of this “new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation.”

The problem is that we have graduated from an era where we were launching a satellite every month or so to one where dozens might be launched every week. The competing communications constellations from Starlink, OneWeb, and others will number in the tens of thousands once deployed, outnumbering by far every other satellite in the sky.

This isn’t a question of maybe seeing one little blip out of the corner of your eye — eventually there may be hundreds of these satellites visible at any given time from nearly anywhere on the planet.

Not only that, but these satellites are frequently in relatively low orbits, making them much more visible than distant geosynchronous ones like GPS satellites — not to mention they’re shiny, the IAU writes:

The surfaces of these satellites are often made of highly reflective metal, and reflections from the Sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise make them appear as slow-moving dots in the night sky.

Are they visible to the naked eye? Depends on a lot of circumstances — the time of day, the position of the craft, the light pollution in your area, and so on. But it’s certainly possible. And astrophotographers and observatories have already noted the problem. You can see the trails of the Starlink satellites in the image at top, and photographer Xplode captured similar trails in this shot — if you look closely you can see there are lots.

High-powered telescopes and sensitive imaging devices are even more susceptible to the issue; the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope team said Starlink was merely a “nuisance,” but acknowledged that for others it may be a far greater threat, and referred to the IAU statement as more representative of the global community.

Naturally there are countermeasures — timing, postprocessing, and other tools for shooters and researchers who don’t want the satellites to interfere. But this will become progressively harder, even impossible for some surveys and exposures, as more satellites are deployed.

SpaceX (which runs Starlink) founder and CEO Elon Musk has tentatively addressed the issue online, promising the team will look into reducing the visibility of the satellites, but that may or may not amount to anything. Any modifications the company makes would be entirely voluntary.

In addition to the visual component, the satellites will be beaming strong radio signals towards the Earth, which can interfere with radio telescopes if the spectrum is not partitioned carefully. This is perhaps a more tractable problem but still must be considered.

This is another case where the industry has long since passed up the regulations that bind it. There’s simply no law against putting thousands of satellites into space — no upper limit on how many, or on how prominent they can be in the sky. The IAU begs that the powers that be look into it:

Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyse and understand the impact of satellite constellations. We also urge appropriate agencies to devise a regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration as soon as practical.

At the speed new regulations are adopted, there will likely be hundreds more satellites in orbit before anything is done, but it’s important to pursue nevertheless. I’ve also asked the American Astronomical Society for their opinion on the topic, and will update this post if I hear back.