It was thought to be sound asleep, even on the highway of the graveyard of major projects, but the Kuiper constellation of Amazon has signed a comeback with a bang. On April 5, the world number one in e-commerce simply completed the largest contract in space history by pre-purchasing 83 rocket launches to deploy its future constellation by 2029, which will be equipped with 3,286 mini -satellites. Objective: to bring high-speed Internet wherever terrestrial networks cannot reach (oceans, mountainous or remote areas, deserts, forests, etc.), but also to allow States and their armies to exchange in complete security. United Launch Alliance takes the biggest slice of the pie with 38 launches, ahead of Blue Origin (37 launches), a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The only non-American of the lot, Arianespace also claims a large share with 18 launches for its future Ariane 6 launcher, which is due to launch its fuselage at the end of 2022. “The biggest contract ever won by Arianespace, after more than two years of negotiations”, welcomed its CEO, Stéphane Israel. The amounts of the deals have not been disclosed but obviously amount to billions of dollars. The reasons that led Amazon to fragment its contract rather than choosing a single operator? “No market player would have been able to absorb so many launches, and it’s also a way of not putting all your eggs in one basket while the chosen launchers are in the transition phase”, emphasizes Maxime Puteaux, space industry specialist for Euroconsult.
The Starlink/Kuiper match is restarted
Rumors also assure that Elon Musk would have offered the services of his company Space X to Amazon, but that Jeff Bezos would have refused to supply a direct competitor. The first two fortunes of the planet (219 billion dollars for Musk against 171 billion for Bezos according to the ranking Forbes) are indeed in competition on the launcher market – even if Blue Origin’s New Glenn still has everything to prove – and above all in direct competition on the constellation market. Starlink has taken a solid lead since in three years it has succeeded in placing 2,300 satellites in low orbit and already has 250,000 subscribers to its Internet service in 11 countries (France has just suspended its authorization to broadcast).
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And Elon Musk assures that his constellation will have 2,200 more in the next eighteen months, aiming for 12,000 units in the medium term. He would even have the authorization to send a total of 42,000 machines into the sky! Kuiper therefore had every interest in going overboard so as not to be definitively dropped in this race for the stars. “Especially since to keep the frequencies granted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the company has an obligation to put half of its constellation into orbit by July 31, 2026, and the other half before July 31, 2029”, emphasizes Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research and specialist in space issues.
Fewer but more powerful satellites
Still, the differences in ambitions in terms of the number of satellites – 3,286 versus 12,000, or even 42,000 – to run these constellations raise questions. The idea, schematically, being that the more satellites you have around the Earth, the denser your mesh, the more customers you can water, the match seems already folded. But the story is actually a bit more complex. To begin with, of the 2,000 Starlink satellites, only 1,600 would be operational today, the others having been desorbed in particular due to technical failures. And many of those who circle the earth today could soon meet the same fate. The whimsical boss of Tesla, Space X, Neuralink… who has just bought 9% of the capital of Twitter, of which he is now the largest shareholder, has indeed decided to change technology. “At the start, the idea was that each satellite should exchange with a “gateway” (a kind of giant antenna) based on earth to be operational, but this required an expensive and complicated infrastructure to set up, says Maxime Puteaux. is therefore in the process of switching to a new inter-satellite link technology: in theory, a single device connected to a “gateway” can retransmit the signal to the entire fleet. But for this the satellites must carry new equipment which do not have those already in orbit, which could therefore become obsolete”.
A change in technology which would explain why after having multiplied the launches, Elon Musk paused at the end of the year 2021. In addition, the constellation of Jeff Bezos could not need as many devices as that of its competitor to offer a more or less similar service. “Very little information is filtering out, but we are almost certain that the Kuiper satellites will be relatively heavy – 500 to 700 kilos, i.e. two to three times the weight of those of Starlink – so more powerful machines allowing us to have a effective mesh with less gear”, continues Maxime Puteaux.
Musk locks down frequencies
Difficult, therefore, to predict the outcome of the clash of multi-billionaires in the stars. The fact remains that behind the battle to put satellites into orbit, there is that of locking frequencies. And in this regard, Starlink has taken a lead that seems difficult to recover since the company would have reserved 42,000 slots. “The first come are the first served, and the positions of those arriving later must not disturb the frequency of the first. However, the radio resource is a finite resource, it is not extensible”, deciphers Xavier Pasco.
It is therefore urgent to reserve and occupy positions while several dozen constellation projects of varying sizes are in the running. The pioneer One Web, owned by the United Kingdom, the Indian telecoms group Bharti and the French operator Eutelsat, plans to complete the deployment of its 648 satellites by the end of 2022, while Europe wants to acquire of its own constellation with at least several hundred devices.
But it is certainly in the field of communication that Elon Musk – whose ability in this area is no longer to be proven – struck the biggest blow. Arrested at the very beginning of the Russian invasion by the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister on Twitter, Elon Musk agreed to move part of his constellation above Ukraine to compensate for the internet cut by the occupying army. It is notably thanks to the Starlink network that the drones of the Ukrainian army receive the coordinates of the enemy tanks that they destroy in number. A perfect communication operation: Musk wraps himself in the clothes of the savior and at the same time proves the concrete usefulness of his constellation when certain specialists continue to quibble about the interest of such a device. They won’t be the first people Musk fed their hats to…