A month after the launch of its first prototype Project Kuiper satellites, Amazon reports that the spacecraft have demonstrated controlled maneuvering in orbit using their custom-built electric propulsion systems.
“A recent series of test firings provided critical on-orbit data to further validate our satellite design, with each test returning nominal results consistent with our design requirements,” Amazon said today in an online status report.
Today’s report suggests that Amazon’s Project Kuiper team — which is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. — is on track in its multibillion-dollar effort to create a 3,236-satellite constellation that would eventually provide broadband internet access for millions of people around the globe.
The two prototypes, known as KuiperSat 1 and 2, were sent into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Oct. 6. They’re designed to test the hardware as well as the software, ground-based facilities and procedures that will be used for the full constellation. Amazon says that the first operational satellites are due to be launched early next year, and that beta service to selected enterprise customers could begin by the end of 2024.
At least half of the 3,236 satellites will have to be placed in orbit by mid-2026 to satisfy the requirements of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission. Mass production is due to begin by the end of the year at Amazon’s factory in Kirkland, Wash., at a rate that Amazon says will eventually ramp up to as many as four satellites per day. So, it’s in Amazon’s interest to make sure the design is fine-tuned as soon as possible.
A key part of the design involves the propulsion system, which is used to maneuver the satellites in orbit and send them down safely to burn up in the atmosphere at the end of their operating life. The Kuiper satellites depend on Hall-effect thrusters that make use of solar-generated electric power and krypton propellant. Those ion thrusters were developed in-house by Amazon’s Kuiper team in Redmond.
“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,” said Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology. “Our custom thrusters are a prime example of Kuiper innovation, and using them to maneuver safely in space was a critical piece of our Protoflight mission. The positive results give us even more confidence in our plans to deploy and operate our satellite constellation.”
Amazon said the test results reinforce the company’s view that all satellites flying above 400 kilometers (249 miles) should include effective maneuvering capabilities, and that satellite operators should share information about spacecraft maneuvers to make operations in low Earth orbit safer and more predictable.
Project Kuiper is far behind SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellite network, which already has more than 2 million subscribers. SpaceX manufactures Starlink satellites at its facility in Redmond, not far from Project Kuiper’s HQ. Those satellites are equipped with Hall-effect thrusters — but for its “V2 Mini” satellites, SpaceX switched the propellant of choice from krypton to argon, which is significantly less expensive.
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