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SpaceX and Amazon in cat-fight over internet satellite constellations

Capitalism in space: Even as SpaceX is rolling out the internet service from its growing Starlink satellite constellation while Amazon’s own Kuiper constellation languishes in development, the two companies are in a battle over the orbits of their respective constellations.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter on Tuesday, as his company works to persuade Federal Communications Commission officials that it should allow SpaceX to move some of its Starlink satellites to lower altitudes than originally planned.

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has been among companies that have disputed SpaceX’s request, on the grounds that the modification would interfere with other satellites.

“It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” Musk said in a tweet.

Amazon responded to Musk’s comment in a statement to CNBC. “The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers. Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

SpaceX in its own response to the FCC has noted “that Amazon representatives have had ’30 meetings to oppose SpaceX’ but ‘no meetings to authorize its own system,’ arguing that the technology giant is attempting ‘to stifle competition.'”

Both companies appear to have a point. Amazon is planning its system under an agreed-to arrangement where its orbits would not conflict with SpaceX’s. To permit SpaceX to change the deal and expand its orbital territory into Amazon’s threatens their system.

At the same time, that Amazon has been so slow to launch its system is something the FCC will not take kindly to. Companies get FCC licensing approval on the condition that they deliver within a certain time frame. Amazon appears to be taking a bit too much time, and SpaceX is trying to take advantage of this fact.

I suspect the FCC will deny SpaceX’s request, but will also tell Amazon that it had better start launching its satellites soon, or else the FCC will change its mind and give SpaceX that orbital territory.

Overall, the slowness of Amazon to launch Kuiper seems to fit the operational pace of Jeff Bezos’ other space company, Blue Origin. Lots of talk, but relatively little action. At some point the talk has to stop and Bezos’ companies have got to start delivering.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

20 comments

  • LocalFluff

    SpaceX is homesteading a very valuable piece of real estate. Bezos could try to launch his paper satellites best he wants. He’s just jealous that he’s now number two in wealth. Amazon was a one off, nothing else flies for him.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Elon: “Don’t make me demonstrate what the ‘Chomper’ version of Starship is really for, Jeff!”

  • eddie willers

    SpaceX is homesteading a very valuable piece of real estate.

    The same types of thought entered my mind. Possession is 9/10ths the law, etc.

    Bob’s probably right, but the FCC should give Amazon a pretty short leash. So far they are just pie-in-the-sky.

  • Joe

    Given the time and money Jeff Bezos has poured into Blue Origin, you would expect there to more ships flying (at least on a monthly basis or so by now). They have a lot of system parts but no complete system. There must be a lot of disorganization inside that company for them to be this far behind. Crying foul when you don’t have much to show for your efforts comes off as whiny.

  • Max

    Jeff Bezos company has taken the political position of deplatforming competitive companies based on their consumers political positions.
    Elon musk overcame bullies in his childhood and can recognize when bullying tactics are being used on him today. What’s “good for the goose is good for the gander” comes to mind were others would say “what comes around, goes around”. Or you reap what you sow. I like, “some people talk talk talk while others do it”.

    The new, more advanced Internet made possible worldwide by Starlink, and the innovative communication satellites that come after, WILL make Amazon obsolete and unable to buy himself part of the new capitalism movement that will leave him behind. Just as his obsolete satellites that were never launched…. Unless Joe Biden’s new executive order to “buy American” gets in the way. His orders are written in such a way that the government will “only buy” “liberal American” shutting out all conservative companies. The result will be our government buying less from America than it currently does. In this case, Amazon becomes the purchasing agent for the entire government.

    It’s arguments like this which give me the realization of how titans would fight, how bloody it could get. Elon has spoken often how AI would be used against competitors. The race for our future has begun, One of the competitors is unethical with strong CIA/china connections. Parlor will be hung around his neck like an Albatraoz forever…

  • Gary M.

    Parrots and Eagles.

    Parrots talk.
    Eagles fly.

  • Richard M

    “There must be a lot of disorganization inside that company for them to be this far behind. ”

    Unlike Musk, Bezos has been more hands off with his rocket company – he was not in a position to turn himself into an aerospace engineer to ride herd on it. So what he ended up doing was hiring “the best people,” and those people were largely from legacy aerospace contractors, and a fair number of military people, for senior positions.

    So Blue Origin ends up being a New Space company that operates a lot like an Old Space company. And having endless Bezos Cash also further reduces the sense of urgency.

    Still, I hope they get to orbit. New Glenn is the most obvious possibility for offering real competition to SpaceX.

  • Jay

    This might be too little too late for Amazon. They expect to have this Kuiper System up by 2026: https://www.geekwire.com/2020/fcc-says-amazon-can-proceed-kuiper-satellites-will-accommodate-rivals/

    Sidenote: Also interesting in the Geek Wire article, Kuiper Systems is moving their offices to Redmond Washington, the same as Starlink. The President of Kuiper Systems use to be a VP over at Starlink.

  • Jay: I wonder if the president of Kuiper that used to be a VP for Starlink was one of the guys Musk fired because they were simply taking too long developing the system.

  • Jay

    Bob,
    I remember the shake up at Starlink about three years ago and a lot of the top management were replaced. I would not be surprised if he was one of them.

  • Icepilot

    Empirical evidence that Starlink delivers – from receiving the email to operating at consistent 100+ Mbps download speeds was 48 hours, from a plug & play, fully connected system in a box. By the time Bezos gets to orbit, Starlink will be delivering 10 Gbps around the world, in place via the cheapest, yet most consistent launch system in the world. And that counts neither Starship nor making their own fuel by drilling gas wells at Boca Chica!

  • Jay

    Bezos is looking for a ride for his Kuiper satellites and does not care who. I remember reading this quote last month about Kuiper …”Amazon is “rocket agnostic” and will be willing to work with any launch provider to send their internet satellites to space.” I forgot where I read it… probably here but forgot the topic, but I found a link to the quote: https://spaceexplored.com/2020/12/17/project-kuiper-amazon-will-be-rocket-agnostic-when-sending-internet-satellites-to-orbit/

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Companies get FCC licensing approval on the condition that they deliver within a certain time frame. Amazon appears to be taking a bit too much time, and SpaceX is trying to take advantage of this fact.

    The same thing applies to geostationary orbital slots. The idea is to prevent companies from sitting on valuable orbital locations and keeping out productive companies. SpaceX is essentially announcing that it is a productive company that is being kept out of valuable orbital locations by a company that is not producing. It is a fair point. It is unfair to everyone to sit on unused valuable orbital locations.

    Blue Origin should take the hint and start being a productive company. It has an immediate potential with New Shepard, and it should quicken the pace on its other projects. Blue Origin should put up (pun intended) or shut up.

  • Jeff Wright

    I think bezos needs to look at the old orbital antenna farm concept with it doubling as a solar powersat.
    In the past, it was hard to find investors–but with reddit showing power with the gamestop squeeze the cool factor can itself push space to the fore both occupy and the tea party hated bailouts but everyone loves space. Publius

  • Chris Lopes

    “And having endless Bezos Cash also further reduces the sense of urgency.”

    That’s the key. Musk is in the space business, Bezos is in the funding space business.

  • MDN

    Does anyone know what the separation standards are for orbital slots? I’m guessing that they are exclusively based on legacy tech standards that are probably far cruder than are now possible. So, another tac SpaceX could pursue is to push for these standards to be tightened and request an adjacent “tweener” slot to Kuiper. This would similarly raise the bar for Kuiper and all other low Earth orbit platforms but such is the cost of business in an ever evolving world. Automate, emigrate, or evaporate as we used to say in manufacturing where I worked in the 80s.

    This should appeal the government too as it is analogous to the way radio spectrum licensing evolved from large bands of spectrum to ever smaller bands as the technology to keep things separated got better and better. If SpaceX can prove superior orbital management, and I’m guessing they can, I’d press on this lever too. If they fail Blue Origin still has to deliver to hold them at bay, and if they succeed they can get essentially the orbit they want and raise the bar for Bezos at the same time, likely further delaying them even more : )

  • LocalFluff

    @MDN
    I don’t see how “slots” can be implemented other than in geostationary orbit. In LEO satellites are launched in all kinds of inclinationa and eccentricities, orbits that cross each other. Israel even launches westward against the rotation of Earth, to not scare Iran it’s a nuclear warhead ICBM.

    Intervals of altitude is the only possible way to divide LEO. And deorbiting will make higher LEO safer than lower.

  • Ray Van Dune just wrote the next James Bond movie.

    “Elon: “Don’t make me demonstrate what the ‘Chomper’ version of Starship is really for, Jeff!”

  • Jay

    LocalFluff,
    You are correct about the intervals in orbital altitude. Kuiper is allocated (almost wrote using) 590km, 610km, and 630km.

  • Edward

    MDN asked: “Does anyone know what the separation standards are for orbital slots?

    Slots in geostationary orbit (GEO) have to do with the radio frequencies used by a satellite. When you aim a radio dish at a satellite, the dish can overhear a satellite up to 1/2 to 1-1/2 degrees away, depending upon the frequency (wavelength). This drives the spacing in GEO. My understanding of the spacing between individual satellites that share the same GEO slot (using different radio frequencies, avoiding interference with each other) is something like 75 to 100 km.

    For lower orbits, where satellites cross orbits, there is an imaginary “keep away” zone for each satellite that is a few kilometers up and down, side to side, and a couple additional kilometers forward and backward. The problem is the difficulty in calculating where a satellite will be at any given time in the future. Thus, we don’t quite know the chance that two satellites collide. For circular orbits, we know fairly well where it will be in the forward-backward direction, because the speed is constant and the orbit runs like clockwork, but as the orbit becomes more elliptical, the uncertainty increases. There are perturbations that affect orbits, such as the gravitational pull of mountains. A mountain to the right of the satellite will tug it toward the right, ever so slightly changing the orbital plane’s angle relative to the equator. There is a clever algorithm that helps to approximate this, but errors over time add up. The orbits of each satellite or piece of space junk need to be updated as often as possible in order to reduce these errors. Atmospheric drag is another perturbation that adds uncertainty to the altitude of any low Earth orbit satellite.

    Spacing of satellites in any one constellation depends upon the number of satellites in any one plane, the coverage desired, and cross coupling capabilities — communication between satellites. The spacing between altitudes of different constellations can limit the ability of the constellations to change the altitude of their various satellites in order to change or correct the spacing of their satellites. If one satellite fails, then the spare satellite in that plane needs to change its altitude in order to move into that empty slot, or all the remaining satellites need to shift forward or backward to respect themselves, which requires changing altitude in order to speed up or slow down.

    Theoretically, multiple constellations could be placed in the same orbital planes at the same circular orbital heights, but in practice there would have to be excellent coordination between constellation companies to prevent collisions where the orbits of the various planes cross each other. Think of the tracks of two different railroads crossing each other, but the trains do not have the ability to slow down or wait for another train to finish crossing. It is easy for one company to coordinate these crossings, but two companies need to coordinate well and coordinate constantly. Does a pissing contest like the one between Amazon and SpaceX make this seem likely?

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