Project Kuiper, Amazon's satellite internet program, is aiming to launch two prototype satellites by the end of next year as it seeks to provide global broadband access to rural and remote areas.
The launch and operation of the prototypes first must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission; Kuiper Systems, the Amazon subsidiary that will operate Project Kuiper, filed what’s known as a “request for experimental license” with the regulator on Monday.
The goal would be to test and validate the satellites’ propulsion, power and attitude control systems, thermal design and over-the-air software update capabilities. Kuiper Systems, which requested a two-year license, would also collect data on performance and telemetry over time, as well as data on the launch operations and mission management.
The two satellites would operate at 590 kilometers above Earth’s surface, one of three orbital altitudes the FCC licensed for use by Kuiper last year. Under that license, Amazon must send up around half its planned total constellation (which clocks in at 3,236 satellites) within the next six years.
Once in orbit, the satellites would link up to ground stations in South America, Asia, Texas and four customer terminal units, according to the company’s experimental license application. The company didn’t provide any more details about the customer units in the application, only noting that they would be the prototype of “an innovative, low-cost customer terminal developed by Amazon.”
The company said it would perform a “propulsive de-orbit” at the end of the mission, meaning the satellites would burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their useful life. Should that process fail, Project Kuiper said the satellites would passively de-orbit via orbital decay three-and-a-half years from launch.
Assuming the license is approved, the two prototypes -- dubbed KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 -- would launch from Cape Canaveral in two separate missions by the fourth quarter of 2022.
Amazon has selected ABL Space Systems as the launch provider for the two missions. While ABL's RS1 rocket has yet to reach orbit, the startup said it plans to conduct its first launch of the 88-foot-tall rocket from Alaska by the end of this year. Last week, ABL announced it had closed a $200 million financing round, which reportedly boosted its valuation up to $2.4 billion.
The two companies have been working together "for several months," Amazon said, with two integration design reviews already completed.
"We see this as just the start of a long-term relationship together and look forward to supporting them as they expand their business," the company said in a statement.
The two prototypes are a crucial steppingstone to commercialization, as Amazon seeks to compete in the burgeoning satellite broadband market that’s currently cornered by SpaceX’s Starlink. That market could generate up to $18.6 billion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.
Amazon plans to invest at least $10 billion in Project Kuiper. The e-commerce giant said last April it had secured an agreement with United Launch Alliance for nine launches. Amazon SVP of Devices & Services David Limp said during last year's TC Sessions: Space that the company will seek multiple launch providers for the project.
“When you have to put 3,200-plus things into space, you will need lots of launch capacity,” he said. “Our hope is that it’s not just one provider, that there will be multiple providers.”