Billionaire space race: can Bezos’s Project Kuiper catch up to Musk’s Starlink?

Amazon’s Project Kuiper lifted off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 6 October 2023, carrying the first two of a planned 3,236 satellites into space. Photograph: Terry Renna/AP

By Adam Gabbatt,
Published by The Guardian, 15 October 2023

As the world’s wealthiest men chest-thump in low-Earth orbit, others wonder how their mess will eventually be cleaned up

You’re a mega-billionaire. You already own one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, and dominate more than half of the US electric car market. You are regularly named as one of the world’s most influential people. You’ve had your hairline sorted, you’ve already had 11 children, so what do you do next?

For Elon Musk, the answer is: attempt to dominate space.

So far the effort is going well. SpaceX, the company Musk founded in 2002, has launched more than 4,500 Starlink satellites in the past five years, accounting for more than 50% of all active satellites orbiting the Earth.

Together those satellites can deliver internet access to almost anywhere in the globe, giving Musk access over global communications and the ability to intervene in

But this unprecedented influence is about to get a rival – another of Earth’s billionaires.

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s third richest man (Musk is the richest), is launching his own bid to influence near-Earth orbit. His first satellites went up into orbit just over a week ago. Now there is a risk that the arena could come to be dominated by two ultra-wealthy men, at least one of whom is prone to impulsive acts.

“Anytime you have that much power concentrated in one decision-maker, it’s something to think about,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director at the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on space sustainability.

The war in Ukraine is a good example of the potential downsides to Musk’s dominance.

In September 2022, Ukrainian forces planned to launch a surprise drone attack on Russian ships based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Ukraine had become reliant on SpaceX internet services in areas where more traditional services had been wiped out or disrupted, and officials issued an emergency request to Musk to activate SpaceX services to Sevastopol. Musk refused, saying he was concerned Russia could launch a nuclear attack in response, and the Ukrainian strike was thwarted.

However noble Musk’s intentions, it raises questions about one man having the power to allow or disallow military attacks by a sovereign state, particularly given Musk’s influence only appears to be growing, with SpaceX now launching new satellites every single week.

The company, which has more than 1.5 million users worldwide, has requested authorization to send a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit – numbers that make Amazon’s recent launch of two satellites (both prototypes) look rather twee.

Amazon’s [plan to have] 3,000 satellites is looking adorable now, when you see how many SpaceX satellites there are

Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation

Meanwhile the effort by Bezos, a space enthusiast who in 2021 was blasted into suborbital flight, has been a long and error-strewn process. Amazon’s Project Kuiper had originally intended to launch the satellites last year, but the rocket carrying Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 failed on launch.

Bezos’s Blue Origin company, which makes rockets, including the one that carried him into space, would ideally be carrying the Kuiper satellites, but the company is yet to successfully launch anything into orbit. According to the New York Times, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, designed to carry Kuiper-like payloads into space, is three years behind schedule. Instead the 6 October launch of the first pair of prototypes blasted into orbit on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

Despite these difficulties, Bezos plans to launch 3,236 satellites by 2029, but Amazon enters the space satellite race with a yawning gap between it and Space X.

“Amazon’s [plan to have] 3,000 satellites is looking adorable now, when you see how many SpaceX satellites there are,” Samson said.

SpaceX “has the first-mover advantage here”, Samson added. But other companies are striving to catch up, and not just Amazon. Eutelsat OneWeb has 634 satellites in lower-Earth orbit – a sweet spot distance from Earth where Space X’s Starlink satellites also operate.

Earlier this year the European Union announced plans to launch 170 satellites into orbit between 2025 and 2027.

A visualization of satellites and space debris around Earth. (Image credit: NASA)
A visualization of satellites and space debris around Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

“The Russian military aggression against Ukraine has demonstrated how crucial space-based sovereign and secure communication services are in case of conflict,” Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, said in a statement at the time.

In terms of the influence of SpaceX, and other private companies or individuals, Samson said there are some regulations. The Outer Space Treaty, a 1967 United Nations-led piece of legislation which has been signed by all major spacefaring nations, holds that countries are responsible for what companies blast into space from their borders – and should continue supervision over those satellites and projects.

There has so far been little recourse for Musk’s unilateral Ukraine action, however, and it’s not just an issue of web influence, or about dominating near-Earth space, that has some observers worried. It also raises the question of how much space there actually is in space.

India was forced to delay, very slightly, its recent Chandrayaan-3 moon-landing mission after projections showed the vessel could come into contact with other satellites. The Indian Space Research Organisation pushed back the launch by four seconds, and made it to the south pole of the moon safely.

“Different orbital shells, or highways – each one has a finite capacity for traffic, just like with roads. Certainly some orbital highways have reached that capacity,” said Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-founder and chief scientist of Privateer, a space data intelligence company.

There is also a race, Jah said, in which “countries are doing whatever they can to occupy orbital space, to claim it as their own”. But given that organizations such as Musk’s SpaceX require government authorization to launch satellites, Jah said the company shouldn’t be blamed for its dominance.

“Elon couldn’t just have 53% of all the satellites out there that are working if it weren’t because the US government allowed him to do that. So I don’t blame Elon for this. I’m just saying the US government backed him, and is encouraging this sort of orbital occupation – and this is going to piss other countries off,” Jah said.

“Occupation is not a good thing. Occupation is a sort of behavior of colonizers, and just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s right.”

The problem isn’t just active satellites. According to the European Space Agency, there are more than 30,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm orbiting the Earth – more than half in the lower space orbit that companies and governments are racing to occupy.

Jah said colleagues of his at Nasa were already reporting that some scientific experiments were becoming difficult due to the amount of debris – typically bits of rockets, payload debris or abandoned satellites.

This increased cluttering poses a serious risk, Jah said.

“We’ve seen more and more rocket bodies and that sort of stuff making it to the Earth’s surface. And statistically [at some point] these things are going to hit land, and statistically at some point things the size of cars or school buses will end in populated areas.”

Jah, who describes himself as a space environmentalist, said more needs to be done to track debris orbiting Earth, and to better dispose of it.

As Musk, Bezos and their rivals ramp up their efforts to fill space, Jah said that Indigenous people’s ideas around “how to utilize a finite resource holistically” offer a path forward.

“Many Indigenous peoples have practices where the only way that they’ve been able to survive is by having a successful conversation with the environment. They acknowledge that they’re in an existential crisis, and they have to adapt and utilize resources, thinking about sustainability and what will 10 generations from now be able to do,” Jah said.

“The idea that we have to be stewards of the environment; just sending up as many satellites as you can to occupy orbits isn’t necessarily stewardship. By doing that it’s alienating other people.

“We should be embracing stewardship, as if our lives depended on it, because it does.”

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