Amazon convinces FCC it can avoid space junk chaos
We wanted robot butlers and flying Deloreans ... and got internet-from-orbit instead
Amazon's plan to launch a series of satellites to offer broadband internet service can move ahead now that the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has endorsed the web giant's plan to keep space tidy.
Barring unforeseen obstacles, Amazon expects to launch its first Project Kuiper satellites "in early 2023."
Project Kuiper received conditional approval from the FCC on July 30, 2020, subject to the American agency's approval of Amazon's orbital debris mitigation plan, among other things.
"Space safety is a core tenet for the Kuiper team, and we’re committed to operating safely and responsibly in space," said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for Project Kuiper, in a statement.
"Our orbital debris mitigation plans demonstrate the Kuiper System is designed to meet or exceed all requirements set forth by the FCC. We are pleased that the Commission has granted our application and we appreciate the coordination to ensure the industry is prioritizing safety."
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Satellites present a collision risk for other objects in orbit and some fail, at which point they must be "deorbited" – moved into what's known as a graveyard orbit or brought back to Earth, intact (e.g. via parachute) or incinerated in the atmosphere.
And Project Kuiper calls for more than a few orbital objects. Amazon plans to operate an non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) system that consists of 3,236 satellites in 98 orbital planes, at altitudes ranging from 590 km to 630 km. NGSO satellites move relative to the Earth, so many are required to maintain connectivity.
Viasat and HughesNet also operate satellite broadband services, though they use only a few satellites in geostationary orbit – in a fixed position relative to the equator that rotates with the Earth.
SpaceX, which runs a rival NGSO satellite broadband service called Starlink, has been tussling with Amazon since Project Kuiper was announced, each trying to use the regulatory process to gain a competitive advantage.
SpaceX has launched about 3,500 first-generation satellites, and in December received FCC approval for adding 7,500 second-generation satellites. That month, the rocket maker said its Starlink service had more than one million active subscribers.
The race between Amazon and SpaceX to dominate the satellite broadband market has been punctuated by social media trolling between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos. Petty though the billionaire belligerence may seem, such sniping underscores the presumed monetary stakes.
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In early 2022, shortly after Amazon filed an update to its orbital debris mitigation plan, SpaceX satellite policy director David Goldman wrote to the FCC asking the commission to look more closely at Amazon's Kuiper plans.
On May 27, 2022, the Kuiper Orbital Debris Modification was filed, and there was a public comment period that brought further input from SpaceX and other firms like Viasat and Kepler Communications. Kuiper responded and in July, SpaceX, Viasat, and OneWeb filed reply comments.
Come November 23, 2022, Kuiper filed another letter addressing concerns raised by commenters about its debris disposal plans. And SpaceX filed response letters two more times, in December and January.
In his latest letter, Goldman argues that the FCC should seek additional information to address safety and debris removal plans, adding that if the Commission ultimately allows Amazon's plan, it should impose the same conditions required of SpaceX in its second-generation satellite grant.
The FCC in its order said that by granting Kuiper's modification order, the agency considered the risks raised by interested parties and to address these issues has required Kuiper to comply with various enumerated conditions and to report debris mitigation actions.
Here's to hoping there's enough space for the broadband space race. ®