- Amazon on Wednesday revealed a key piece of hardware for Kuiper, its planned fleet of thousands of internet-beaming satellites.
- Called a phased-array antenna, the device is the crucial component of a consumer terminal: a device that connects subscribers to the web via overflying Kuiper satellites.
- While SpaceX is years ahead of Amazon in deploying and testing its own satellite-internet fleet, called Starlink, the new antenna is nevertheless an important advancement.
- The prototype Kuiper antenna is about a foot in diameter, 34% the size of Starlink’s similar antenna, which could make it cheaper to manufacture and easier to install.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Tech giant Amazon this week unveiled what it called a “breakthrough” in satellite-internet technology for consumers that, one day, could give SpaceX a run for its money.
Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, is in the midst of a $10 billion, FCC-approved effort called Kuiper. The goal is to launch 3,236 communications satellites into orbits that tightly hug planet Earth, providing a high-speed, low-lag internet service to “tens of millions of underserved or unserved” customers, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of device and services, told TechCrunch during its Space 2020 virtual conference on Wednesday.
The company’s key development, staff wrote in an Amazon blog post published the same day, was a shrinking of a phased-array antenna that can track and relay data to satellites flying overhead. That small form factor — about 30 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter — allowed Amazon to produce a compact, lightweight, and yet highly effective consumer terminal, or satellite dish, the company said.
“It’s basically the size of a 33 LP [record],” Limp told TechCrunch, yet can achieve 400 Megabits per second transfer speed (Mbps), which is plenty of bandwidth to power a data-hungry household. “We’ve never seen anybody even close to that using the kind of bandwidth and spectrum that we are.”
Limp noted the consumer terminal, which includes vital electronics other than the antenna, will not cost about $10,000 — a typical price paid to put high-techs satellite dishes on ships and aircraft. Instead, Amazon is looking for a “five to 10” times decrease in cost, Limp said, adding “we now have a path to that” with the new antenna design.
“I don’t know what the end-customer pricing will be. We’ll probably make that decision that day before we launch —that’s typically Amazon’s pricing strategy,” he said.
Amazon’s compact answer to SpaceX’s growing satellite network
No Kuiper spacecraft has yet flown to orbit, putting Amazon years behind in competing with SpaceX. Elon Musk’s aerospace company has already launched nearly 900 operational Starlink satellites and is rocketing about 60 new spacecraft into orbit every three weeks. It also kicked off a public beta test this fall.
Still, Amazon’s creation of a compact consumer antenna that can track and communicate with Kuiper satellites flying overhead at roughly 15,000 mph is a major step forward. Such devices are highly complex and typically very expensive. Millions may need to be manufactured to close the business case of a Kuiper, Starlink, and other low-Earth orbit satellite constellations — high-stakes projects which, so far, have all gone bankrupt.
Recent reporting by Business Insider suggests SpaceX is paying device manufacturer STMicroelectronics about $2,400 per Starlink user terminal. Given Starlink’s $499 one-time fee for a starter kit, which includes the terminal and other gear, it’s likely SpaceX will have to make up the difference in monthly service charges over many years to break even.
Amazon says its terminal’s relatively diminutive size is a big advantage for cost and convenience. Nima Mahanfar, the senior manager of Kuiper’s hardware and antenna development, said in a Q&A provided to Business Insider that the biggest challenge was cramming many tiny antennas onto one circuit board without it getting too complex, or causing performance and power issues.
“Our objective was to ensure our antenna was mass producible by mainstream circuit board manufacturers, allowing us to take advantage of economies of scale and produce millions at low cost. We had to keep our design as simple as possible to satisfy this objective,” she said.
An animation posted by the company on Wednesday, above, suggests Mahanfar and others figured out a way to do that.
“The team was able to do, in a clever way, overlay Rx and Tx — receive and send — in the same lattice. And by doing that, we were able to shrink down the size of antenna, reuse components and bring cost down,” Limp said.
But he added “the cleverness didn’t stop there,” as the team also modified its satellite antennas in such a way to further reduce terminal cost.
The animation compares the Kuiper phased-array antenna to a “legacy” model, though Amazon does not specify which older device its referring to.
In any case, the measurements jibe with Starlink’s terminal’s antenna. In a video posted on YouTube last month, engineer Ken Keiter tore apart SpaceX’s terminal model to study its internal components. Keiter measured the internal antenna’s longest diameter as 54 centimeters (21 inches) and its shortest as 50 centimeters (20 inches).
The average between the two is 52 centimeters (20.4 inches), which is the number Amazon compares to in its graphics and animation.
Amazon’s antenna prototype comes out to an area of roughly 730 square centimeters, versus a SpaceX’s 2,100 square centimeters, making the Kuiper antenna about 34% the size of the Starlink antenna.
Still, Mahanfar says major design challenges have yet to be solved with its satellite components, and that Amazon is looking to staff up with creative engineers who can help.
“Solving power challenges in space is hard, and dissipating the heat from that power is even harder. There’s no air to cool it. So having a low-power system that can provide many gigabytes of service to customers is key,” she said. “How can we reduce the power consumption of these space-borne phased arrays? That’s one of the other big challenges facing anyone deploying phased array antennas in low earth orbit.”
‘If somebody has a rocket out there, give us a call’
In order for Kuiper to remain licensed by the FCC, Amazon has to launch at least half of its 3,236 satellites within the next six years.
We asked Amazon if the company plans to use New Glenn, a forthcoming partly reusable rocket system being developed by Blue Origin (a space company founded by Bezos in 2000), to truck those spacecraft to orbit.
“We’re exploring all options at the moment,” an Amazon spokesperson told Business Insider in an email.
Limp said Kuiper satellites are “launch agnostic,” telling TechCrunch that “if somebody has a rocket out there, give us a call.”
His cordiality also extended to the question of Kuiper competing with Starlink and essentially wished SpaceX the best of luck.
“No one constellation is going to serve the number of unserved people out there today. And by the way, we also need really successful 5G networks, and we need really successful [coaxial] networks,” Limp told TechCrunch.
He added: “Amazon and our customers benefit from a better internet, and we will be one part of that, but I hope there are a dozen other constellations that do it safely and reliably.”