Amazon lays out constellation service goals, deployment and deorbit plans to FCC

Space

WASHINGTON — Amazon released more details on its plan to deploy 3,236 broadband satellites, telling U.S. telecom regulators the constellation can start service in limited areas with less than a fifth of the total constellation. 

Amazon’s Kuiper System satellites will have a design life seven years — less than half that of a traditional geostationary communications satellite — and will be launched in five waves, according to a July 4 filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. 

The first wave consists of 578 satellites that would provide internet service in two horizontal coverage bands, one between 39 degrees north and 56 degrees north (roughly from Philadelphia north to Moscow) and another from 39 degrees south down to 56 degrees south (roughly from Hastings, New Zealand, to the top of Great Britain’s South Sandwich Islands in the Atlantic Ocean). The subsequent four waves would fill in coverage to the equator. 

Amazon didn’t say when those satellites would launch or what launch vehicle they would use to reach orbit. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, also owns launch company Blue Origin, whose New Glenn orbital rocket is slated for a first launch in 2021.

Amazon’s Kuiper System was revealed in April through a filing with a United Nations agency called the International Telecommunication Union. That filing, first reported by Geekwire, contained little information beyond the number of satellites and their intended orbits. 

The ITU coordinates spectrum to prevent interference between different communications systems on a global level. The FCC regulates communications in the U.S., and since the U.S. is Amazon’s licensing country, the agency is also tasked with authorizing the launch and operation of the Kuiper System. 

Markets and Infrastructure

Amazon’s focus with the Kuiper System is to connect “tens of millions of unserved and underserved consumers and businesses in the United States and around the globe,” according to the filing. 

Consumer demand, though often considered the most difficult to capture with a megaconstellation due to low-cost terminal requirements, may be what Amazon considers its largest market. Amazon told the FCC that consumer demand for broadband services “far exceeds the potential capacity available by all [non-geosynchronous satellite] systems proposed to date, including Amazon’s Kuiper System.”

SpaceX also has consumer broadband as a major focus for its Starlink constellation of up to 12,000 satellites, as does OneWeb with its constellation of 650 to 2,000 satellites. Both have initial satellites in orbit. 

Amazon said the Kuiper System will target transportation systems including aircraft, boats and land vehicles as well — making the constellation a competitor with other proposed low Earth orbit systems like those of Telesat and LeoSat that do not have consumer broadband as a focus. 

To serve that full range of markets, Amazon said the Kuiper System will rely on a user-terminal mix comprised of flat, electronically steered, phased-array antennas and mechanically steered dish antennas. Kuiper System satellites will be equipped with Ka-band phased-array antennas to form reprogrammable spot beams that link with user terminals on the ground, Amazon said. 

Amazon said it has the resources to realize the Kuiper System, including global computer infrastructure, intercontinental fiber links and data centers. The company cited Amazon Web Services, which activated a satellite ground station business in May, as evidence of its experience in advanced technology development. Amazon also made mention of its delivery-via-drone project, Amazon Prime Air, and its autonomous package delivery project Amazon Scout, but didn’t say if or how those would mesh with the Kuiper System. 

Debris mitigation and deorbit plans

If a Kuiper System satellite fails, it would naturally deorbit within a maximum of 10 years, according to Amazon’s projections. 

The Kuiper System calls for three “shells” of satellites all at the lower range of low Earth orbits — 590 kilometers, 610 kilometers and 630 kilometers. Due to their proximity to Earth, Amazon predicts dead satellites would naturally deorbit on average between five to seven years. 

Should a satellite lose contact with ground stations beyond a “pre-determined wait period,” it would automatically decommission itself, Amazon said. That decommissioning process involves orbit lowering, followed by depleting batteries, emptying fuel lines and tanks, and ensuring charging circuits are “permanently switched off or fused” to obviate the risk of a surprise recharge.

Satellites that are actively disposed of should de-orbit within a year by using onboard propulsion, Amazon said.

Amazon said its “design goal” with the Kuiper System is to use an “unpressurized non-explosive propellant storage” for a chemically inert fuel. The company said it is working with the U.S. Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center on safety aspects, including constellation design and maneuver plans. Commercial space situational awareness companies are involved in those efforts too, Amazon said. 

Amazon said it plans to launch production satellites to an altitude below the International Space Station and conduct system checks there before raising the satellites to their target orbit. 

While that may ease concerns regarding the safety of humans in orbit, Amazon’s Kuiper System could generate concerns about inter-constellation collisions. The lowest shell of Amazon’s constellation would orbit just 40 kilometers above a layer of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. 

In April, the FCC approved SpaceX’s plans to operate around 1,600 satellites at 550 kilometers. The Kuiper System, as envisioned, would have its lowest 784 satellites circling the Earth at 590 kilometers. Another 1,296 Kuiper System satellites would orbit 20 kilometers higher at 610 kilometers, followed by the remaining 1,156 satellites again 20 kilometers higher at 630 kilometers. 

OneWeb has argued for a 125-kilometer separation zone between constellations as a means of avoiding spacecraft collisions. 

Amazon told the FCC that a 40-kilometer gap between constellations “allows for potential variability in orbital station keeping control techniques that may exist between different satellite operators.”

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