Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a well-known interest in space after founding Blue Origin, his own private space firm. Now, Amazon is reportedly on the verge of launching thousands of satellites that would provide global internet access. The effort, known as Project Kuiper, looks like a direct challenge to SpaceX’s planned Starlink satellite internet service.
Amazon has yet to offer details on the plans publicly, but all the basics are laid out in a series of three International Telecommunications Union regulatory filings spotted by Geekwire. The documents describe a network of 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft would orbit in three layers with 784 satellites at 367 miles (590 kilometers), 1,296 at 379 miles (610 kilometers), and 1,156 at 391 miles (630 kilometers).
The satellites would cover the globe from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. As a point of reference, Moscow and central Canada are at about 56 degrees north, and the tip of South America is only 55 degrees South. About 95 percent of the world’s population would have line-of-sight access to Project Kuiper, but it’s unclear how many people it could actually serve.
Current satellite internet services suffer from slow speeds is high latency, and the hardware required on the ground is often expensive. Amazon makes money by with online retail and cloud services, so getting more people online could boost its business. It could undercut many of the competing satellite internet systems and still come out ahead even if the product is only marginally better. The UN estimates there are 4 billion people underserved by existing internet access options.
Blue Origin aims to launch space tourists soon, but maybe some Amazon satellites could make the trip, too.
When contacted for comment, Amazon confirmed that Project Kuiper exists and that it intends to use it to deliver “low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities.” The company also describes Project Kuiper as a “long-term” project, suggesting it could be years before anyone can post memes via Amazon’s satellites.
The SpaceX Starlink system does seem much closer to reality. The company could put its first Starlink satellites in orbit in 2020, and it plans to have a much larger network than Project Kuiper. SpaceX will have more than 10,000 satellites, some of which will have lower orbits than Project Kuiper in order to reduce latency.