How Amazon Plans to Take Down SpaceX

There’s a new space race coming, and this time it’s all about data

Alastair Isaacs
Dec 3, 2020 · 7 min read

Sixty seconds and five miles is all it takes to break the sound barrier. For another minute the rocket accelerates — and then the engines cut and gravity takes over. One minute more, now sixty miles high, the rocket gently touches the edge of space and begins the long fall back to Earth. Two minutes later New Shepard is back on solid ground, gently guided down by parachutes.

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Jeff Bezos stands with New Shepard, just before the first launch. Image by Blue Origin.

That first flight lasted less than five minutes, but it marked a major milestone for Blue Origin and its owner, Jeff Bezos. For the first time ever, the company had successfully launched a rocket, and come close to reaching space. Bezos, founder and billionaire CEO of Amazon, was well on his way to starting a new space age.

Though many dream of reaching space, Jeff Bezos is better placed than almost anyone to reach such lofty ambitions. An early pioneer of Internet retail — he founded Amazon in 1994 — he has since created the world’s largest retail and computing platform. Amazon is now one of the most valuable companies in the world, with annual revenues exceeding the GDP of dozens of countries.

This tremendous success has made Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man, with a fortune that can grow by billions in a single day. With so much money at his disposal, Bezos has the resources to pursue almost any fancy that takes his mind. But his interest in space is more than just a whim; he seems to believe that reaching space is vital for our future as a species.

Space Is the Only Way to Go

On several occasions Bezos has expressed the view that mankind must inevitably move into the heavens. His vision — outlined in a speech in 2019 — paints a future of mass industrialisation of space. Instead of polluting and destroying our fragile world, he wants factories placed in giant orbiting hubs.

Bezos imagines humanity will leave the Earth as well. But unlike others, who picture colonies on Mars or on the Moon, he believes we will construct gigantic habitats in space. These structures, first imagined by physicist Gerard O’Neill, could be perfectly adapted to human life. Unlike planets, which by nature are limited in size, an almost endless supply of habitats could be built.

In this vision of the future, the pressure we currently place on the Earth would slowly be lifted. As manufacturing moved off-world, pollution would fall. As people migrate to new habitats in the heavens, wildlife could reclaim our planet. Eventually the Earth would become a massive park, and humanity would become truly space-borne.

What Bezos imagines is vast in scale, a revolution comparable to the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago. Even with huge wealth and the vast resources of Amazon, Bezos will not be able to do it alone. His aim, at least for now, is to the take the first few steps down the road towards that future. The launch of New Shepard in 2015 was the first, small, step along the road. Now he has bigger steps planned.

Take Blue Origin first. Since 2015 the company has continued work on New Shepard. They have now made a dozen sub-orbital flights, and hope to soon demonstrate that the capsule can carry paying passengers to the edge of space. The real prize, of course, is building an orbital rocket — and with New Glenn, a new design, Blue Origin believe they have that.

Building an orbital rocket is hard. Only one private company — SpaceX — has ever managed to do so. Despite at least eight years of development work Blue Origin still have not flown New Glenn, though they claim to be close to a launch, perhaps as soon as 2021. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin hope to one day carry astronauts onboard, taking them to orbit, and even beyond.

To that end Blue Origin have announced another secretive project: New Armstrong. Though little is known about the project, it would appear to be a lunar rocket of some kind. That guess is backed up by Bezos’ publicly stated ambitions to reach the Moon. In 2019 he unveiled a planned lunar lander named Blue Moon, now under consideration by NASA for use in any American return to the Moon.

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Blue Moon: a vision of how Jeff Bezos may one day send deliveries, and astronauts, to the Moon. Image by Blue Origin

The Second Path to Space: Amazon

Blue Origin is a separate company to Amazon. It sells no products, and makes no profit. The company is funded privately by Jeff Bezos, reportedly costing him more than a billion dollars every year. And though it has had some success in reaching space, it has not achieved as much as Elon Musk has with SpaceX.

Through Amazon, though, Bezos has a second lever to push his goals in space. And though the company has so far revealed little about its intentions, it has made several interesting announcements. Most notably the company has announced plans, named Project Kuiper, to launch a constellation of satellites. Officially the aim is to expand Internet access, especially among the poor. But this is probably not the only reason Amazon is suddenly interested in the heavens.

The business case for large satellite constellations remains unproven. Previous attempts at building such constellations — by Iridium, Teledesic and Globalstar — failed miserably when faced with the high costs of putting thousands of satellites into orbit. Several recent attempts have stumbled at the same hurdle. OneWeb recently suffered bankruptcy, and others like LeoSat have long since faded away.

Jeff Bezos does not seem to be afraid of the huge capital investment, or even of running a satellite internet service at a loss. If instead the constellation serves as a means to drive data and customers towards Amazon’s computing platform, it may be worth the costs. If it can serve his other ambitions in space, and perhaps provide Blue Origin with a dedicated customer, even better.

Both Amazon and Microsoft are already building ground stations near their data centres. They aim to transfer data from orbit to their computing clouds as fast as possible. It is clear both companies think large amounts of data will soon be flowing through satellite networks, and they each want to capture as much of this market as they can.

Much like computer infrastructure, satellites don’t directly earn revenue for their owners. Their value lies in the data they collect or transfer, and especially in processing that data. One clue that Amazon is thinking in this direction comes from Earth, a set of tools provided through Amazon Web Services that handles processing of Earth observation data.

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Satellites can capture vast amounts of data. The hard part is getting it back to Earth. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

To Know the Future, Watch the Data

The idea is simple. Amazon, or rivals, can provide powerful data processing tools through their cloud platforms. Satellite networks, together with strategically located ground stations, help them rapidly collect and transfer data into the cloud. Stop thinking about satellite broadband as a way of connecting the world, then, and start thinking of it as a massive new way of gathering data.

More speculatively, Amazon could even treat its satellites as a service. Instead of needing to launch a constellation of satellites to collect datasets, could you just rent sensor time on an Amazon satellite? If Amazon is regularly launching satellites, could you just pay them a nominal fee to carry your device to orbit?

If this succeeds, if the cost of getting an instrument into orbit falls to almost nothing, then we may see huge volumes of data following back to Earth. Everything from weather monitoring to movements of ships, aircraft and cargo containers could potentially be watched, recorded and processed through Amazon offerings.

This is, so far, just speculation. Amazon has revealed very little publicly about its plans for satellite constellations, though senior figures at Amazon hint they are thinking in this direction. Regardless, as more and more satellites go up, and constellations grow ever larger, it’s hard not to imagine something similar happening.

The elephant in the room is, of course, SpaceX. By all appearances they are far ahead of Amazon and Jeff Bezos. SpaceX have already launched astronauts to the International Space Station, and placed hundreds of satellites into orbit. Amazon, by contrast, seem to have hardly moved off the drawing board. Can they really compete?

Amazon has two big advantages over SpaceX. They have more money, with annual revenues that dwarf anything SpaceX can claim. They also have more existing infrastructure. If Amazon can make space all about data, their existing platforms will make them the clear winner, even if they are slow to get started.

Jeff Bezos though, is undoubtedly thinking bigger. New Shepard, Blue Origin, Blue Moon, Project Kuiper. All are just the first steps along a path towards revolutionising our way of life. That revolution may not happen for decades, or even centuries. But Bezos is determined to give humanity the push it needs to get moving.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Alastair Isaacs

Written by

Physicist and ex-astronomer. Satellite operator. Traveller, writer, photographer. Sign up to my newsletter at https://oneblueplanet.substack.com/

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Alastair Isaacs

Written by

Physicist and ex-astronomer. Satellite operator. Traveller, writer, photographer. Sign up to my newsletter at https://oneblueplanet.substack.com/

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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