Project Kuiper, a satellite constellation by Amazon

Amazon has recently confirmed Project Kuiper, a satellite constellation aiming at providing Internet access to ninety-five per cent of the world’s population. Project Kuiper’s existence had been revealed following the filing of several ITU (International Telecommunication Union) documents.

The new constellation should consist of more than three thousand satellites covering about ninety-five per cent of the world’s population. No partner is currently mentioned for the production of the satellite constellation, but for launch operations, we expect Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ other private company, to be involved. With the Kuiper project, Amazon is in direct competition with the satellite constellations OneWeb (whose deployment began on February 27, with the first six operational satellites launched from French Guyana) and SpaceX’s Starlink. There will soon be an intense low-orbit traffic around the planet.

The development of satellite constellations

A satellite constellation is a group of artificial satellites (an artificial object which has been intentionally placed into orbit; such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth’s Moon) working in concert. Such a constellation can be considered to be a number of satellites with coordinated ground coverage, operating together under shared control, synchronized so that they overlap well in coverage, the period in which a satellite or other spacecraft is visible above the local horizon (sometimes called a pass, in spaceflight and satellite communications, it is the period in which a satellite or other spacecraft is above the local horizon and available for radio communication with a particular ground station, satellite receiver, or relay satellite; the beginning of a pass is termed acquisition of signal, the end of a pass is termed loss of signal, and the point at which a spacecraft comes closest to a ground observer is the time of closest approach).

Low Earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) are often deployed in satellite constellations, because the coverage area provided by a single LEO satellite only covers a small area that moves as the satellite travels at the high angular velocity needed to maintain its orbit. Many LEO satellites are needed to maintain continuous coverage over an area. This contrasts with geostationary satellites, where a single satellite, moving at the same angular velocity as the rotation of the Earth’s surface, provides permanent coverage over a large area. A group of formation-flying satellites very close together and moving in almost identical orbits is known as a satellite cluster or sometimes, the concept of “Satellite formation flying” is used. Satellite formation flying is the concept that multiple satellites can work together in a group to accomplish the objective of one larger, usually more expensive, satellite. Coordinating smaller satellites has many benefits over single satellites including simpler designs, faster build times, cheaper replacement creating higher redundancy, unprecedented high resolution, and the ability to view research targets from multiple angles or at multiple times. These qualities make them ideal for astronomy, communications, meteorology, and environmental uses.

The next deployment of gigantic satellite constellations is about to disrupt the equilibrium that has existed in outer space since Sputnik. This formerly sanctuary environment becomes more and more crowded and the great powers confront it without succeeding in consulting each other. Nearly eight thousand satellites have been sent into outer space since Sputnik in 1957. Today it is estimated that a little less than two thousand are still operational. Those impressive figures are nothing compared to what’s about to happen: in the near future, a handful of private companies are going to send more satellites in outer space than all humanity in sixty years of Space History.

In outer space, the future will concern satellite constellations: fleets of thousands of small satellites (usually CubeSats) launched by some private companies that are preparing to upset the balance that existed up there. This New Space age has already begun: on February 27, a Soyuz rocket took off from Kourou (French Guiana) to place six small telecommunications satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the first elements of a fleet of nine hundred space objects launched by the private company OneWeb. In the future, outer space will be more and more congested and the technologies deployed will flirt more and more between the civilian and the military.

The satellite constellation projects are known: OneWeb has planned to launch nine hundred satellites, SpaceX thinks about eleven thousand satellites, Boeing is on one thousand and five hundred satellites while Samsung wants to send between four and six thousand satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These programs illustrate the ongoing upheaval in outer space where public actors are giving way more and more to private operators. They are embarking on two promising areas: telecommunications, offering global Internet coverage, including in areas that are currently underserve, and observing technologies (imaging and intelligence).

This evolution is made possible because the production costs of the satellites are in perpetual decrease. The time is now minisatellites and other CubeSats. Some companies announce they can manufacture about fifteen a week. This is the case of Greg Wyler, the millionaire at the head of OneWeb, who has partnered with Arianespace and Airbus for his project. In terms of price, these minisatellites are infinitely cheaper and much easier to launch than large geostationary satellites, which weigh several tons, cost millions of dollars and take two years to manufacture (but the accuracy of their images can reach a few tens centimetres). The peculiarity of all these future space systems is that they will share a common environment: the low orbit of our planet. However, this influx of newcomers requires the development of new tools to maintain, repair and ultimately remove all these satellites. This is what’s called Space Traffic Management, which could be described as “the planning, coordination, and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in outer space”. We’ll study the Space Traffic Management question in a future article.

Project Kuiper, a satellite constellation by Amazon

How to bring Internet connectivity to people who do not have wired coverage or good cellular coverage? After Google, Facebook, SpaceX or Airbus, it is the turn of the powerful Amazon group to consider the creation of a satellite internet network called “Kuiper”.

The e-commerce giant is expected to engage in satellite broadband Internet services. The rumour has been running since last fall and has been confirmed by Amazon, after filing applications with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent agency of the United States government created by statute to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable (the FCC serves the public in the areas of broadband access, fair competition, radio frequency use, media responsibility, public safety, and homeland security): the private company of Jeff Bezos, via the private company Kuiper Systems, is developing a project “to serve tens of millions of people without basic broadband Internet access” through a constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites capable of “providing broadband connectivity to underserved communities around the world”. Code name: Project Kuiper, in tribute to the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper who gave his name to the asteroid belt.

Space Legal Issues

Speaking about Project Kuiper, satellites, has shown in previous articles, are space objects: they obey laws enacted by Public International Space Law. The interesting space law question concerns liability. With the multiplication of satellites in Low Earth Orbit, the risk of collisions in outer space (between satellites, with spacecraft) is about to become serious. Hence the need for “the planning, coordination, and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in outer space”: Space Traffic Management.

Keeping up with space traffic is becoming more challenging. Satellites are getting smaller and cheaper to launch. Scientists, companies and even schools can build one to photograph Earth for as little as then thousand dollars. And constellations of thousands of spacecraft will increasingly be used for ambitious projects. The potential for collisions, accidents, misunderstandings and conflicts is growing. Each crash releases debris that threatens other space activities.

Let’s recall that Article VII of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article II of the 1972 Liability Convention adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”. Article III then adds that “In the event of damage being caused elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth to a space object of one launching State or to persons or property on board such a space object by a space object of another launching State, the latter shall be liable only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible”.

Fault could be described as “a negligent or intentional failure to act reasonably or according to law or duty. It is an improper act or omission causing injury to another and arising from ignorance, carelessness, or negligence”. Could the notion of fault, concerning the way satellites are monitored for example, develop in the coming years and lead to legal disputes?

To adapt to a crowded and democratized space future, we will need some form of space traffic management. The US government is seeking to lead global efforts while developing policies to manage its satellites more effectively. This would not involve “traffic police” directing satellites left or right, but a system more like the weather service. Satellite operators would share information and receive status reports and collision alerts. Companies would develop and sell services and apps based on the data.

But space traffic is a global concern, affecting civil, commercial and national security activities. China and India are now major players; Australia and New Zealand have both created national space agencies in the past three years. Entrepreneurs and educators are eager to expand their foothold. But there are few internationally accepted rules or norms for operating in orbit. No global framework exists for coordinating spacecraft movements.

Let’s hope that national and international norms and standards of operations will be agreed. This is what we can say about Project Kuiper.