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Project Kuiper and Beyond: An Internet Satellite Overview

Real time view of all Starlink satellites in orbit as of November, 2023

On the 6th of October, 2023, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket lifted off from SLC-41 carrying Amazon’s first two prototype Kuiper internet satellites. The Kuiper Constellation will be the latest in a growing list of internet satellite constellations orbiting the Earth, facilitating humanity’s ability to spread wealths of information across massive distances at quicker rates than ever. However, the history of internet satellites, and modern information transfer as a whole, extends back for decades. Communications satellites currently make up the majority of all active satellites orbiting the Earth, and there are thousands more on the way. However, in order to understand how satellite internet became so widespread, you have to travel back to the early forms of communication. 

Prior to the first satellites, the quickest ways for information to travel was through shortwave radio transmissions and low capacity telegram systems. Although communication was much more efficient within developed areas separated by minimal distance, transcontinental and oceanic communications were heavily limited in capacity and efficiency. As the first satellites such as Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1 were launched by the Soviet Union and United States in the late 1950s, relaying information through satellites in orbit began to be seriously considered. Just 14 months after the first satellite was sent into space, SCORE, the world’s first dedicated communications satellite, was placed into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on December 18th, 1958. While SCORE served no practical use to the public, it was a technology demonstration that proved information, such as voice recordings, could be relayed and broadcasted across the planet via satellite transmission. 

Modern internet satellites operate primarily based on altitude, capacity, and number of satellites in orbit. When an internet satellite receives a signal from the ground, it then relays it back to another location on Earth. Internet satellites can also relay the signal to another satellite, or satellites in orbit, which can then send the signal to an Earth based receiver, covering a much greater distance. This is a massive advantage over ground based communications equipment because internet satellites have the ability to send signals to any location on Earth that falls under their paths. For example, fully remote regions which have little to no connectivity can be connected to the rest of the world. That being said, internet satellites play an irreplaceable role in connecting the vast reaches of the Earth. 

Following the SCORE mission, the next major milestone in the realm of communications was Telstar-1. Launching from Cape Canaveral, Telstar-1 began its mission in July of 1962 on a Thor-Delta rocket, setting many firsts in the world of spaceflight. Telstar-1 was the first satellite to transmit live imagery from the US to Europe, which unintentionally included a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs. Telstar-1 was also the first satellite to relay a phone call between former president Lyndon Johnson and the then chairman of AT&T, Frederick Chappel. Although it is still in orbit today, the Telstar-1 was rendered non-operational after it felt the effects of the Starfish Prime test, a high altitude nuclear detonation.

Telstar-1 being readied for flight prior to launch on July 10, 1962.
Credit: NASA

Telstar then moved onto Telstar-2. Although both Telstar-1 and 2 were nearly identical and served more or less the same purpose, Telstar-2 went on to transmit signals for just over two years. Although Telstar’s first two satellites were revolutionary, ground stations faced extreme difficulty tracking the spacecraft in a low earth, high velocity orbit. After almost a twenty year gap, the Telstar-301, 302, and 303 series began to be launched. Manufactured by the Hughes Space and Communications company, the Telstar-3 satellites served much larger audiences, acting as one of the more prominent means of broadcasting for major networks such as ABC, CBS, and The Fox Broadcasting Company, along with communication networks such as AT&T. All three Telstar-3 series satellites were located in a geostationary earth orbit (GEO), allowing them to reach a much greater portion of the Earth’s surface as opposed to their previous two satellites. In total, Telstar has sent 23 satellites into orbit, most of which were placed in geostationary positions. Most recently, the Telstar-19 Vantage spacecraft was launched on July 22nd, 2018, and still provides coverage to the North Atlantic region to this day. 

One of the first major internet satellite constellations to follow was Iridium. Iridium first began launching their first generation of satellites, developed by Iridium SSC, in 1998. Becoming operational in 2002, Iridium launched 66 communications satellites into polar LEO. Being in a lower orbit, Iridium required more satellites to provide global coverage. However, since their satellites were placed into a polar orbit, Iridium could provide coverage to even the most northern or southern locations on earth. Unfortunately, Iridium’s first generation of satellites weren’t successful in the market and Iridium faced bankruptcy as a result. 

It was only as recently as 2017 when Iridium bounced back with the first launch of their Iridium-NEXT constellation upgrade. Iridium-NEXT takes a similar strategy as the original Iridium constellation, consisting of a significant number of satellites orbiting at a relatively low altitude. However, unlike the first generation of Iridium satellites, Iridium-NEXT can provide stronger signals and faster communications while utilizing smaller antennas and lower power requirements. As of the writing of this article, Iridium has built 81 next generation communications satellites, 80 of which have been deployed. On top of providing general communication capabilities across the world, Iridium-NEXT satellites also came with the hardware necessary to transfer ADS-B and ASI data. ADS-B has widespread use for air traffic controllers while ASI assists in ship tracking.

In between Iridium’s two generations of satellites came the start of the O3b constellation. Operated by SES, a satellite communications provider based out of Luxembourg, O3b was developed with hopes of providing internet access to the major portion of the global population who didn’t have stable network access. In fact, the name O3b stands for the “other 3 billion” who lack proper connection to the rest of the world. After their first launch in 2013 and the start of operations the following year, a total of 20 O3b satellites have been placed into orbit. Unlike most communications satellites, however, the O3b constellation was placed into a medium earth orbit (MEO), giving them a comfortable tradeoff between the relatively low number of satellites required to complete a constellation and decent latency time. While O3b aims to provide communication access to the majority of the world’s population, they are fundamentally limited; the O3b constellation does not include orbits that pass over high latitudes. Given that the O3b constellation doesn’t orbit at a very high altitude, they begin to lose coverage above and below ~50° in latitude. 

Similarly to Iridium, O3b is also in the process of deploying a series of upgraded satellites which are known as O3b mPOWER. O3b mPOWER is also being placed into MEO and will offer higher capacity while requiring fewer resources to do so. As a matter of fact, during the writing of this article a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched O3b mPOWER satellites 5 & 6. In the coming years, another 6 mPOWER satellites will be launched into MEO, completing O3b’s coverage.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carries O3b mPOWER 5 & 6 to orbit 
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

Another recent player to join the communications satellite market is OneWeb. Founded just over ten years ago, OneWeb set out to manufacture and fly low cost satellites, and ultimately build a major constellation in LEO. First launching in 2019, OneWeb has since sent over 600 satellites into polar orbit, covering the entirety of the Earth’s surface at a low altitude, giving them the ability to offer much lower latency. OneWeb currently offers coverage to the majority of Europe and has plans to open up coverage to the US by the end of 2023. In order to stay competitive in the communications satellite market, OneWeb has already begun development of their second generation of satellites. Having already flown and tested a technology demonstrator in May of 2023, OneWeb plans to expand their coverage utilizing Gen2 satellites within the next few years. 

Another internet satellite provider who has become especially relevant in recent months is ViaSat. Although ViaSat was building internet satellites for other providers as early as the start of the 2000s, it wasn’t until October of 2011 when ViaSat-1 was launched into GEO. At the time of launch, ViaSat-1 was the highest capacity internet satellite ever flown, at about 140 Gbit/s. At such a high altitude and with so much capacity, ViaSat-1 is able to cover the majority of North America, and remains operational to this day. Only seven years later, ViaSat put ViaSat-2 into operation. At 300 Gbit/s, ViaSat-2 more than doubled the capacity of its predecessor, and once again held the record for the most capable internet satellite ever launched. Also placed into GEO, ViaSat-2 expanded coverage across much of the Americas and remains operational. 

ViaSat-3, however, has been troubled with issues ever since July of this year. The first of three ViaSat-3 satellites was launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in May of 2023, also into GEO. The ViaSat-3 satellites were expected to provide up to 1 Tbit/s, 600% more capacity than the entire previous fleet of ViaSat, and will do so with near global coverage. Just a few months after launch, however, ViaSat announced that a malfunction had occurred within the deployment sequence of the reflector of the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite. Although they will not require a replacement, ViaSat-3 will not operate at its full planned potential, and ViaSat’s stocks plummeted 20% as a result.

An artist’s interpretation of what ViaSat-3 would have looked like following full deployment
Credit: Viasat

Although satellite internet has been in widespread use for decades, it has been put back into the spotlight especially recently as a result of the introduction of the first so-called megaconstellation; Starlink. Built, launched, and operated by SpaceX, Starlink takes on satellite internet from a new angle. Unlike essentially all previous internet satellites, Starlink is mass produced in an assembly line-like process to cut prices and keep up with their incredibly demanding launch rate. SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites was sent into LEO in November, 2019. Since then, SpaceX has sent over five thousand of their own Starlink satellites into orbit, representing the majority of all active satellites orbiting the Earth. SpaceX plans to increase this number to 12,000 in the coming years, and may extend that to 42,000 in the future. Starlink requires this high number of satellites to make up for their orbital altitude. Being in LEO, Starlink takes advantage of low latency rates, however they need far more satellites to cover the Earth’s surface. Since Starlink plans to provide extremely low cost and high capacity internet to its users, they are taking full advantage of SpaceX’s high launch cadence and low costs to roll out global coverage in the coming years. 

Despite so many competitors, new internet satellites are still managing to join the market. The newest to the game is Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. Similarly to O3b, Kuiper will be launched into MEO, providing decent latency without requiring an overwhelming number of satellites. Kuiper’s initial deployment phase will consist of 578 satellites, after which they will begin to roll out partial coverage. Following this, launch providers such as United Launch Alliance (ULA), ArianeGroup, and Blue Origin will continue to send another 2,658 satellites into space. Kupier will offer different forms of user terminals to match different needs. This includes a standard 400Mbps, 11 square inch terminal, a 100Mbps, 7 square inch ultra compact terminal, and a 1Gbps, 19 x 30 inch terminal for higher profile customers. As of the writing of this article, the first launch of operational Kuiper satellites is planned for March, 2024.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V carries Amazon’s first two prototype Kuiper satellites into Medium Earth Orbit
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

These examples represent just seven of the many internet satellite providers throughout history and show just how drastically the world of communications is changing. At this rate, it stands to reason that low cost, low latency, and high capacity internet will be accessible globally, even from some of the most remote regions of the Earth within the next 5 to 10 years. However, this doesn’t come without its own setbacks and conflicts. Due to the global scale of satellite based internet, federal regulations and global politics have become notorious for playing a major role in how internet satellites are deployed and operated. 

On the regulatory side, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has full control over how many satellites a constellation may be made up of. They also allocate specific frequencies to be used by internet providers. While this regulation is necessary, it complicates the implementation of internet satellites. For example, by giving SpaceX approval to launch at least 12,000 Starlink satellites, the FCC has made it more difficult for other satellite providers to send their own spacecraft into LEO as the risk of an orbital collision is immensely greater. Furthermore, astronomers and astrophysicists worldwide have expressed their own criticisms of Starlink, citing the negative impact that a more cluttered LEO has on ground based astronomical observations.

The political side of satellite internet implementation becomes even more conflicted and difficult to manage. The most prominent examples of this have come with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and have involved Iridium, OneWeb, and Starlink. In September of 2023, it became public that Iridium had been offering their services to the Russian government throughout the invasion, a breach of sanctions that had been set in place by western nations. 

On the other side of the conflict lies Starlink. After the destruction of satellite internet equipment, Starlink stepped in and offered their services at the request of the Ukrainian government, and so a dependency was developed. However, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has expressed reservations regarding the use of Starlink within Ukraine. Musk has publicly stated that although Starlink has been the backbone of Ukraine’s communications on the front lines, they “will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3”. Starlink has faced criticism from both sides of the conflict as a result of their involvement. 

Thirdly is OneWeb who physically found themselves in the middle of the conflict. OneWeb initially relied on the Russian-built Soyuz rocket to send their satellites into orbit. After the breakout of conflict and the implementation of sanctions, both the UK government who oversees OneWeb and the Russian government had reservations over how their future launches would take place. The UK wanted OneWeb to call their launches off altogether to abide by their sanctions, whereas the Russian government would only launch OneWeb’s payloads if they had a guarantee that the satellites wouldn’t be used against Russia in their invasion. OneWeb didn’t give that assurance, and so Russia canceled all future OneWeb missions, forcing OneWeb to find new launch providers to support their constellation. 

Satellite constellations are also very prone to legal issues. Having not yet launched operational satellites, Amazon and their Kuiper constellation are already facing a lawsuit filed by the Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, a shareholder in the Amazon company. They claimed that the launch providers chosen to fly Amazon’s Kuiper satellites were not selected in the best interest of shareholders. Suggesting personal influence, the suit claims that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos chose his own Blue Origin, alongside ULA who will be utilizing Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, to launch the Kuiper constellation, rather than a low cost and proven launch provider such as SpaceX, a direct competitor to Blue Origin. Investors are stressing the fact that the majority of the launch vehicles that are slated to fly Kuiper are yet to be flown, let alone proven, whereas SpaceX’s vehicles are both proven to be low cost and reliable. Amazon has since denied these claims. 

Ultimately, the expansion of satellite internet is having a massive impact on not just on the communications and broadcasting industries, but the global launch market. As of the writing of this article, 2023 has hosted 181 orbital rocket launches. Of those 181 launches, 53 have been dedicated to SpaceX Starlink missions. This extremely high launch cadence has forced range operators, pad technicians, and the launch market as a whole to adapt to more rapid and demanding turnaround times and operations. While this may seem overwhelming at first glance, it’s opening up the aerospace industry to much higher launch rates and payload opportunities. Rocket Lab’s upcoming Neutron rocket is a prime example of the adaptation of industry to the rise in megaconstellations. On top of being designed around rapid and almost complete reusability, the primary market that Rocket Lab lists Neutron to be the target of is megaconstellation deployment. The expansion of satellite internet alone is encouraging the development of launch vehicles, and in the end is shaping the future of the aerospace industry. 

Regardless of their inevitable complications and difficulties, the past six decades have only proven the potential of satellite based internet, assuming the market can support it. With the launch of internet satellites happening on a weekly basis, the hope that even the most remote and desolate regions of the Earth will be connected together quickly, and for a low price, is rapidly becoming a reality.

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