Amazon’s space venture, Project Kuiper, is making good progress, with a pair of prototype satellites executing controlled maneuvers in low Earth orbit. The ongoing Protomission, as it’s called, sets the stage for the company to further develop its internet satellite constellation, one that could eventually compete with SpaceX’s Starlink.

The test mission for Project Kuiper is ticking along nicely, with the two test satellites successfully executing controlled maneuvering in low Earth orbit, according to an Amazon statement. Utilizing an electric propulsion system, ground controllers demonstrated the capability to effectively navigate their satellites in space, crucial for maintaining orbital safety and sustainability. With Project Kuiper, Amazon aims to set up a huge network of satellites to provide internet connectivity across the globe similar to SpaceX’s Starlink and Eutelsat OneWeb.

“Space safety and sustainability have been fundamental to Project Kuiper since day one, and our propulsion system is one of the first systems we built and tested in the lab,” Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, said in the statement. Amazon’s own thrusters are a key innovation in the Kuiper project, and using them for safe space maneuvers is a crucial component of the Protoflight mission, Badyal said, adding that the good results have given the company an extra boost of confidence in its plan to roll out and run its satellite network.

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For Amazon, this is good news, as the company is working under a tight timeline mandated by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license, requiring the deployment of half of its 3,236-satellite constellation by July 2026. Despite initial challenges, including a switch from ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket to United Launch Alliance (ULA) due to developmental delays, Amazon claims to remain on track. ULA launched the first two prototype satellites, KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, on an Atlas V rocket on October 6, 2023. Amazon aims to begin serving its first Project Kuiper customers by the end of 2024, with full deployment potentially extending until 2029. The company has secured 77 heavy-lift launches with multiple commercial providers, including Arianespace, ULA, and Blue Origin, the latter being Jeff Bezos’s other space venture.

Project Kuiper’s propulsion system, which includes a custom thruster built by its own team and a krypton-filled propellant tank, underwent a batch of test firings. These tests went well, meeting Amazon’s expectations. This maneuverability is key for the satellites to reach their operational orbits and remain there, dodge space junk, and safely come back down to burn up in the atmosphere when their mission is over.

The Kuiper system will orbit between 367 and 391 miles (590 and 630 km) above Earth, using an active propulsion system to combat atmospheric drag and maintain satellite altitude within 5.6 miles (9 km) of target operational orbits. Amazon’s design, featuring electric propulsion and a propellant tank designed to burn up during reentry, aims to extend satellite lifespan and minimize space debris.

Amazon is moving forward, but it trails behind SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellite network, which already boasts over 5,000 operational satellites and over 2 million subscribers. Starlink, using Hall effect thrusters similar to Project Kuiper, recently transitioned to argon as the propellant for its V2 Mini satellites, a move aimed at cost efficiency. Argon is less expensive and more abundant than krypton, limitations that could go on to hurt the Amazon space project.

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