(CNN) — Amazon is aiming to join the race to build massive constellations of satellites that can blanket the globe in internet connectivity — a move that will officially put the tech company in direct competition with SpaceX and its Starlink system.
The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s network, called Project Kuiper, are set to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a two-hour window that opens at 2 p.m. ET Friday.
“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,” said Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, in a statement. “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.”
If successful, the mission could queue up Amazon to begin adding hundreds more of the satellites into orbit, eventually building a network of more than 3,200 satellites that will work in tandem to beam internet connectivity to the ground.
It’s the same business model employed by Starlink, the SpaceX constellation that has been growing rapidly since 2019. Already, SpaceX has more than 4,500 active Starlink satellites in orbit and offers commercial and residential service to most of the Americas, Europe and Australia.
The space industry is in the midst of a revolution. Until relatively recently, most space-based telecommunications services were provided by large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which lies thousands of miles away from Earth. The drawback with this space-based internet strategy was that the extreme distance of the satellites created frustrating lag times.
Now, companies including SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are looking to bring things closer to home.
Even before those companies began to build their services, the satellite industry dreamed of delivering high-speed, space-based internet directly to consumers. There were several such efforts in the 1990s that either ended in bankruptcy or forced corporate owners to shift plans when expenses outweighed the payoffs.
Cheaper satellites and lower launch costs have led to the emergence of “megaconstellations” in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, that lie less than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above Earth. Unlike geostationary orbit, which allows satellites to stay fixed over the same area of Earth and beam uninterrupted service to a certain area, satellites in LEO whisk by at high speed. That’s why thousands of satellites are required to work together for this approach to blanket the planet in connectivity.
Such widespread high-speed internet access could be revolutionary. As of 2021, nearly 3 billion people across the globe still lacked basic internet access, according to statistics from the United Nations. That’s because more common forms of internet service, such as underground fiber optic cables, had not yet reached certain areas of the world.
SpaceX is well ahead of the competition in terms of growing its service, and its efforts so far have occasionally thrust the company into geopolitical controversy.
The company notably faced significant blowback in late 2022 and early 2023 for preventing Ukrainian troops on the front lines of the war with Russia from accessing Starlink services, which had been crucial to Ukraine’s military operations. (The company later reversed course, and Musk discussed the Ukraine controversy in a recent book.)
It’s possible Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation could become part of that conversation — facing similar geopolitical pressures — if the network proves successful.
“I’m also curious if Amazon plans dual-use capabilities where government/defense will be a major client. This may result in the targeting of Kuiper like that of Starlink in Ukraine,” said Gregory Falco, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, in a statement.
Despite the promises of a global internet access revolution, the massive satellite megaconstellations needed to beam internet across the globe are controversial.
Already, there are thousands of pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit. And the more objects there are in space, the more likely it is that disastrous collisions could occur, further exacerbating the issue.
The Federal Communications Commission, which authorizes space-based telecom services, recently began enhancing its space debris mitigation policies.
For its part, the satellite industry has largely pledged to abide by recommended best practices, including pledging to deorbit satellites as missions conclude.
In a May blog post, Amazon previously laid out its plans for sustainability, which include ensuring its satellites are capable of maneuvering while in orbit.
Amazon also pledged to safely deorbit the first two test satellites at the end of their mission.
Separately, astronomers have also continuously raised concerns about the impact all these satellites in low-Earth orbit have on the night sky, warning that these manmade objects can intrude upon and distort telescope observations and complicate ongoing research.
Amazon addressed those concerns in a statement to CNN, saying one of the two prototype satellites launching Friday will test antireflective technology aiming to mitigate telescope interference. The company has also been consulting with astronomers from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, according to Amazon spokesperson Brecke Boyd.
SpaceX has made similar commitments.
The business of space-based internet
It remains to be seen how well Project Kuiper will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink. And while Starlink already has more than 1 million customers, documents recently obtained by the Wall Street Journal showed that the SpaceX megaconstellation hasn’t been as successful as once projected.
As far as consumer price points go: People can purchase a Starlink user terminal for a home for about $600 plus the cost of monthly service.
Amazon has said it hopes to produce Project Kuiper terminals for as low as about $400 per device, though the company has not yet begun demonstrating or selling the terminals. The company has not revealed a price for monthly Kuiper services.
SpaceX has had the clear advantage of using its own Falcon 9 rockets to launch batches of Starlink satellites to orbit.
Amazon does not have its own rockets. And while the Jeff Bezos-founded rocket company Blue Origin is working on a rocket capable of reaching orbit, the project is years behind schedule and does not have a clear price point.
For now, Kuiper satellites are launching on rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a close partner of Blue Origin.
(Copyright (c) 2023 CNN. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)