A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off carrying Amazon’s two satellites for its space-based internet service on Friday. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
By Christian Davenport,
Published by The Washington Post, 6 October 2023
Amazon stretched its reach to space on Friday, sending its first two internet satellites to orbit, a key step toward building out a constellation of more than 3,000 satellites that it hopes will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink system to provide online access to millions without it.
The pair of prototype satellites were launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 2:06 p.m. Eastern on an Atlas V rocket operated by the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It was not immediately clear after the launch if the satellites were in their correct orbit and functioning properly. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.
Over the coming days and weeks, Amazon hopes to use the satellites to “add real-world data from space to years of data collected from lab and field testing” as it works to put up the rest of its Kuiper constellation, the company said in a blog post.
“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design. But there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” Rajeev Badyal, Kuiper’s vice president of technology, said in the post. “This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds.”
Amazon, which has said it intends to invest more than $10 billion in the network, hopes to launch its first production satellites during the first half of next year and begin preliminary testing with commercial customers by the end of 2024. Under its license from the Federal Communications Commission, it must launch half of the 3,236 satellites it foresees in the constellation by July 2026. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim Post CEO Patty Stonesifer is a member of Amazon’s board.)
The goal is to connect the many millions of people in rural and remote areas without access to broadband. The system works by beaming internet signals from the satellites to small ground terminals.
Amazon executives see the Kuiper network as an eventual competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink service, which has grown quickly and has become a lifeline in Ukraine, as well a flash point for controversy. SpaceX founder Elon Musk did not want it used for offensive drone attacks and declined to turn it on within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast, which hampered a Ukrainian attack on Russian forces. But it will take several years to fully build out Amazon’s system and give Musk real competition.
Not only is Amazon under deadline pressure, the company has awarded contracts to launch the bulk of its Kuiper network on a trio of rockets — Blue Origin’s New Glenn, ULA’s Vulcan, and Arianespace’s Ariane 6 — that have faced repeated delays and have yet to fly. Bezos also owns Blue Origin.
Those launch contracts spurred a lawsuit, filed in August by an Amazon shareholder, that alleges the company breached its fiduciary duty by failing to consider giving the launch business to SpaceX, one of the most affordable and reliable launch providers in the world.
“By excluding SpaceX, Bezos and his management team minimized bid competition for the launch agreements and likely committed Amazon to spending hundreds of millions of dollars more than it would have otherwise had to,” the suit says. It also alleges that part of the reason Amazon didn’t use SpaceX was because of the rivalry between Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “Given their bitter track record, Bezos had every reason to exclude Musk’s SpaceX form the process entirely,” the lawsuit says. “And Bezos, it must be assumed, could not swallow his pride to seek his bitter rival’s help to launch Amazon’s satellites.”
Amazon has denied the allegations. “The claims in this lawsuit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process,” a spokesperson said. In an interview with Washington Post Live last year, Dave Limp,Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services, said the company was “open to talking to SpaceX. You’d be crazy not to, given their track record.” Limp was recently named the chief executive of Blue Origin, a position he is expected to assume in December.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has taken a massive lead with its Starlink system. It has nearly 5,000 satellites operating in orbit, and the company, which has launched 70 times already this year, has been able to launch them rapidly on its Falcon 9 rocket. The company has said its system is working in more than 60 countries and has more than 2 million active customers. Last month, SpaceX also won a Pentagon contract worth up to $70 million for its Starshield system, the military version of Starlink.
Still, Amazon is confident it will be able to compete.
“I think this is one of those things where the headlines would have you think that this is a sports race, and there’s going to be one winner,” Limp told The Post last year. “There are literally hundreds of millions of customers around the world that don’t have access to great broadband. … I think there’s plenty of room for two great constellations.”
Amazon believes it has an advantage by building on its already massive customer base, as well as its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, which it has said should help the company deliver high-speed internet.
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