Amazon first announced its goal of deploying a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit in 2019. This was the second pursuit in space by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and former chief executive who also owns Blue Origin, the rocket company. A handful of other firms are also racing to offer high-speed internet to governments, other companies and consumers whose access is hampered by the digital divide in remote locations.
Like SpaceX, Amazon plans to spend $10 billion on the project, which sits within its device’s unit. But the company has been slower to start than SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rockets have lofted nearly 2,000 internet-beaming satellites into orbit for its own venture, Starlink. Thousands of customers are testing the SpaceX service for $99 a month with $499 antenna kits.
Amazon unveiled a customer antenna concept in 2020 and has been testing prototype satellites on the ground for years.
“You can test all the stuff you want in your labs, which we do,” Rajeev Badyal, a vice president at Amazon overseeing the Kuiper project, said in an interview. “But the ultimate test is in space.”
Competition among the companies is fierce, and their plans have drawn interest from investors and analysts who foresee tens of billions of dollars in revenue once the constellations become fully operational. But those same plans have also drawn criticism from space safety advocates who fear collisions of satellites adding to pollution in orbit; astronomers, whose ground-based telescope observations of the night sky could be disrupted by the satellites; and dark skies advocates who fear light pollution from sunlight reflecting from the constellations.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates satellite communications to the ground, approved Amazon’s network in 2020 and gave the company a deadline to launch half of its 3,236 satellites by mid-2026. Amazon bought nine launches from the rocket company United Launch Alliance in a deal likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But Amazon has been talking to other launch companies, Mr. Badyal said, including its competitor, SpaceX, whose rapid Starlink deployment is partially because of its ability to use its own reusable rocket boosters for launches.
The first two prototype satellites, KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat- 2, will launch separately on rockets from ABL Space Systems, one of a handful of start-ups building smaller launch vehicles to sate demand from satellite companies. The market for smaller rockets, designed to deliver payloads to space quickly and affordably, is packed with competitors, making ABL’s Amazon contract — good for up to five launches on ABL’s RS1 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. — a boost for the company.
The pair of Amazon prototype satellites will test internet connections between space and the company’s flat, square antennas for consumers on the ground for the first time in Amazon’s Kuiper program. Regions for the test include parts of South America, the Asia-Pacific region and Central Texas. Past experiments involved flying drones with satellite hardware over antennas on the ground and connecting ground antennas to other companies’ satellites already in space, drawing internet speeds fast enough to stream high-definition video.