The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved an application by Seattle-based Amazon to launch more than 3,000 satellites into orbit, despite ongoing concerns about launching so-called mega constellations.
Yesterday, Thursday, July 30, five FCC commissioners voted unaminaously to approve Amazon’s Project Kuiper – a mega constellation of 3,236 satellites that will orbit Earth, designed to beam internet to the ground.
Amazon – owned by U.S. entrepreneur Jeff Bezos – will be required to launch half their satellites by 2026, and the rest by 2029, as per the FCC’s authorization.
“We conclude that grant of Kuiper’s application would advance the public interest by authorizing a system designed to increase the availability of high-speed broadband service to consumers, government, and businesses,” the FCC wrote in its authorization for the satellites.
Project Kuiper is Amazon’s entrant into the race for space internet, competing with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, the recently revived U.K.-based OneWeb, and several other players. Amazon asked the FCC for permission to launch its satellites back in July 2019.
The goal is to blanket Earth in satellites in low orbits, which will them beam the internet to ground stations that people can connect to, including from remote locations that might not otherwise have internet access. Amazon’s satellites will orbit between 590 and 630 kilometers, as per the FCC authorization.
In a statement, Amazon said it intended to invest “more than $10 billion” in Project Kuiper. “There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all,” Dave Limp, Senior Vice President at Amazon, said in the statement. “Kuiper will change that.”
However, there are significant concerns about launching such large numbers of satellites into orbit, such as the risk of collisions between satellites, which could be disastrous.
Currently only about 2,000 active satellites orbit Earth, but SpaceX alone plans to increase this by up to 42,000 with its Starlink constellation, coupled with thousands more from Amazon, OneWeb, and others.
When satellites get too close to each other, they must move out of the way to avoid a potential collision. Currently these maneuvers, known as a collision avoidance maneuver, are performed three times a day. Estimates suggest this will increase to eight an hour if all planned mega constellations are launched.
If two satellites collide, they can produce thousands of pieces of debris that can potentially hit other satellites. In 2009, for example, an active U.S. satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite, creating a large cloud of dangerous debris.
In a worst case scenario, one collision could start a chain reaction of collisions, leading to cascades of space junk as more and more satellites collide. Known as the Kessler syndrome, this would potentially leave parts of Earth orbit unusuable.
In its FCC authorization, Amazon noted it would attempt to deorbit satellites within 355 days of the end of their mission, “a shorter time frame than the 25-year standard established by NASA,” to tackle the issue of space debirs.
However, there was no mention of how the satellites will be deorbited in the event of failure. And satellites are prone to failure, remaining in orbit for tens of even hundreds of years until they are pulled back into the atmosphere.
Equally concerning is the impact these satellites can have on the night sky. Already SpaceX has had a large amount of backlash for the brightness of its Starlink satellites, which have impacted the night sky for astronomers and the general public alike. The company has belatedly tried to address these concerns.
Amazon has not revealed how bright its satellites might be, nor what sort of impact they might have on the sky. The FCC did, however, ask Amazon to consider the impact of its satellites on radio astronomy.
Nonetheless, there will be concerns about yet another constellation of satellites that astronomers will have to contend with in their efforts to study the universe, potentially forever altering the aesthetic of the night sky for many.
Project Kuiper is not the only mega constellation in development. Indeed, SpaceX has already launched hundreds of Starlink satellites, and OneWeb has launched dozens of its own.
But the emergence of another mega constellation, when issues regarding space debris and astronomy are yet to be resolved, will be worrisome to many. In the pursuit of slightly faster rural internet from space, there remain serious and legitimate concerns that could have impacts for generations.
Amazon did not respond to a request to comment for this article.