SpaceX accounts for roughly one-half of all orbital space launches around the world, and it’s growing its launch frequency. It also has a majority of all the satellites in orbit around the planet. This Thursday, majority owner & CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “Excited to announce that SpaceX Starlink has achieved breakeven cash flow! Starlink (a SpaceX subsidiary) is also now a majority of all active satellites and will have launched a majority of all satellites cumulatively from Earth by next year.”
There are some 5,000 Starlink satellites in orbit. Starlink satellites are small, lower-cost satellites built by SpaceX that deliver high-speed, space-based internet service to customers on Earth. Starlink can cost about $120 a month and there is some hardware to buy as well.
Starlink ended 2022 with roughly 1 million subscribers. The subscriber count now isn’t known, but it could be approaching 2 million users based on prior growth rates. SpaceX didn’t return a request for comment.
In 2021, Musk said SpaceX would spin off and take Starlink public once its cash flow was reasonably predictable.
A SpaceX rocket carriers Starlink satellites into orbit. PHOTO CREDIT: SPACEX
Starlink has been in the spotlight since last year as it helps provide Ukraine with satellite communications key to its war efforts against Russia.
Last month, Musk said Starlink will support communication links in Gaza with “internationally recognized aid organizations” after a telephone and internet blackout isolated people in the Gaza Strip from the world and from each other.
Musk has sought to establish the Starlink business unit as a crucial source of revenue to fund SpaceX’s more capital-intensive projects such as its next-generation Starship, a giant reusable rocket the company intends to fly to the moon for NASA within the next decade.
Starlink posted a more than six-fold surge in revenue last year to $1.4 billion, but fell short of targets set by Musk, the Wall Street Journal reported in September, citing documents.
SpaceX is valued at about $150 billion and is one of the most valuable private companies in the world.
Amazon has finally joined the race to build massive constellations of satellites that can blanket the globe in internet connectivity — a move that puts the tech company in direct competition with SpaceX and its Starlink satellite Internet system. The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper space network, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:06 p.m. ET Friday. The Protoflight launch is the first mission in a broader commercial partnership between ULA and Amazon to launch the majority of the Project Kuiper constellation.
“This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds,” Rajeev Badyal, a vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said in a statement from the company before the launch. “We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” he added.
“This initial launch is the first step in support of deployment of Amazon’s initiative to provide fast, affordable broadband service to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs. “We have worked diligently in partnership with the Project Kuiper team to launch this important mission that will help connect the world. We look forward to continuing and building on the partnership for future missions.”
United Launch Alliance cut off the livestream of the launch after the first stage of its rocket — the portion that provides the initial boost at liftoff — finished firing its engines off. The company did confirm “mission success,” and said in a news release that it “precisely” delivered the satellites. Amazon could not immediately confirm contact with the satellites.
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the Protoflight mission for Amazon’s Project Kuiper lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:06 p.m. EDT on October 6.
Photo by United Launch Alliance
If successful, the mission could queue up Amazon to begin adding hundreds more of the satellites into orbit, eventually building a network of more than 3,200 satellites that will work in tandem to beam internet connectivity to the ground.
But why wasn’t a Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos) rocket used to launch the Project Kuiper satellites? It’s because Blue Origin has yet to launch anything into orbit. Although its suborbital space tourist rocket New Shepard has made many flights, the New Glenn rocket that it has been developing for more than a decade to take payloads like Kuiper satellites to orbit is at least three years behind schedule. Its debut flight is penciled in for next year. In April last year, Amazon announced a gigantic purchase of up to 83 launches, the largest commercial purchase of rocket launches ever. That includes 27 from Blue Origin and the rest from two other companies, Arianespace of France and United Launch Alliance of the United States. The contracts with the other companies also rely on new rockets that have not yet flown: the Ariane 6 from Arianespace and the Vulcan from United Launch Alliance.
The leading satellite Internet company is Starlink, the SpaceX subsidiary that has been growing rapidly since 2019. SpaceX has more than 4,500 active Starlink satellites in orbit and offers commercial and residential service to most of the Americas, Europe and Australia.
The space industry is in the midst of a revolution. Until relatively recently, most space-based telecommunications services were provided by large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which lies thousands of miles away from Earth. The drawback with this space-based internet strategy was that the extreme distance of the satellites created frustrating lag times. Now, companies including SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are looking to bring things closer to home.
Even before those companies began to build their services, the satellite industry dreamed of delivering high-speed, space-based internet directly to consumers. There were several such efforts in the 1990s that either ended in bankruptcy or forced corporate owners to shift plans when expenses outweighed the payoffs.
Such widespread high-speed internet access could be revolutionary. As of 2021, nearly 3 billion people across the globe still lacked basic internet access, according to statistics from the United Nations. That’s because more common forms of internet service, such as underground fiber optic cables, had not yet reached certain areas of the world.
SpaceX is well ahead of the competition in terms of growing its service, and its efforts so far have occasionally thrust the company into geopolitical controversy. The company notably faced significant blowback in late 2022 and early 2023 for preventing Ukrainian troops on the front lines of the war with Russia from accessing Starlink services, which had been crucial to Ukraine’s military operations. (The company later reversed course, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk discussed the Ukraine controversy in a recent book.) It’s possible Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation could become part of that conversation — facing similar geopolitical pressures — if the network proves successful.
“I’m also curious if Amazon plans dual-use capabilities where government/defense will be a major client. This may result in the targeting of Kuiper like that of Starlink in Ukraine,” said Gregory Falco, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, in a statement.
Despite the promises of a global internet access revolution, the massive satellite megaconstellations needed to beam internet across the globe are controversial. Already, there are thousands of pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit. And the more objects there are in space, the more likely it is that disastrous collisions could occur, further exacerbating the issue.
The Federal Communications Commission, which authorizes space-based telecom services, recently began enhancing its space debris mitigation policies. The satellite industry has largely pledged to abide by recommended best practices, including pledging to deorbit satellites as missions conclude.
In a May blog post, Amazon previously laid out its plans for sustainability, which include ensuring its satellites are capable of maneuvering while in orbit. Amazon also pledged to safely deorbit the first two test satellites at the end of their mission.
Separately, astronomers have also continuously raised concerns about the impact all these satellites in low-Earth orbit have on the night sky, warning that these manmade objects can intrude upon and distort telescope observations and complicate ongoing research.
Amazon addressed those concerns in a statement to CNN, saying one of the two prototype satellites it launched Friday will test antireflective technology aiming to mitigate telescope interference. The company has also been consulting with astronomers from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, according to Amazon spokesperson Brecke Boyd. However, SpaceX has made similar commitments.
It remains to be seen how well Project Kuiper will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink. And while Starlink already has more than 1 million customers, documents recently obtained by the Wall Street Journal showed that the SpaceX megaconstellation hasn’t been as successful as once projected.
As far as consumer price points go: People can purchase a Starlink user terminal for a home for about $600 plus the cost of monthly service.
Amazon has said it hopes to produce Project Kuiper terminals for as low as about $400 per device, though the company has not yet begun demonstrating or selling the terminals. The company has not revealed a price for monthly Kuiper services.
SpaceX has had the clear advantage of using its own Falcon 9 rockets to launch batches of Starlink satellites to orbit.
Amazon does not have its own rockets. And while the Jeff Bezos-founded rocket company Blue Origin is working on a rocket capable of reaching orbit, the project is years behind schedule.
For now, Kuiper satellites are launching on rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a close partner of Blue Origin. In addition to ULA and Blue Origin, Amazon has a Project Kuiper launch contract with European launch provider Arianespace.
On August 28, The Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, which owns a stake in Amazon, filed a lawsuit against the company over the launch contracts. The lawsuit alleges Amazon executives “consciously and intentionally breached their most basic fiduciary responsibilities” in part by forgoing the option of launching Project Kuiper satellites on rockets built by SpaceX, which the suit claims is “one of the most cost-effective launch providers.”
“The claims in this lawsuit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process,” said an Amazon spokesperson.
If all goes to plan, Amazon said it intends to launch its first production satellites early next year and begin offering beta testing to initial customers by the end of 2024, according to a news release.