SpaceX and its billionaire CEO Elon Musk may finally have a reason to look over their shoulder in the satellite internet race. On Thursday, Amazon revealed it successfully used a space laser technology called “optical inter-satellite link” (OISL) to beam a 100 gigabit per second connection between two of its Project Kuiper satellites stationed 621 miles apart from each other in low Earth orbit. That’s roughly the distance between New York and Cincinnati. Amazon believes that same tech could help it soon deliver fast and reliable broadband internet to some of the most remote regions on Earth.
Typically, LEO satellites send data between antennas at the customer’s location and ground gateways that connect back to the internet. An OISL eliminates the need for that immediate data downlink to the ground, which can increase internet speed and reduce latency, particularly for end-users in remote areas. The ability to communicate directly between satellites means that, in practical terms, OISLs could bring strong internet connections to cruisers in the ocean or offshore oil rigs many miles away from land.
“With optical inter-satellite links across our satellite constellation, Project Kuiper will effectively operate as a mesh network in space,” Project Kuiper Vice President of Technology Rajeev Badyal said in a statement.
“Mesh networks” generally refer to a group of connected devices that work side-by-side to form a single network. In a press release, Amazon says it plans to outfit its satellites with multiple optical terminals so several of them can connect with each other simultaneously. In theory, that should establish “high-speed laser cross links” that form the basis for a fast mesh network in space. Amazon expects this space-based mesh network should be capable of transferring data around 30% faster than terrestrial fiber optic cables sending data across roughly the same distance. How that actually plays out in practice for everyday users still remains to be seen since Project Kuiper’s services aren’t currently available to consumers.
Amazon launched its first two satellites into orbit in October and carried out the OISL tests in November. The two satellites, KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, were reportedly able to send and receive data at speeds of roughly 100 gigabits per second for an hour-long test window. The satellites had to maintain that link while moving at up to 15,534 miles per hour.
Kuiper Government Solution Vice President Ricky Freeman said the network’s ability to provide “multiple paths to route through space” could be particularly appealing to customers “looking to avoid communications architecture that can be intercepted or jammed.”
When asked by PopSci if the potential customer described here is a military or defense contractor, an Amazon spokesperson said Project Kuiper is focused “first and foremost” on providing internet coverage to residential customers in remote and underserved communities. The spokesperson went on to say it may approach government partners in the future as well.
“We are committed to working with public and private sector partners that share our commitment to bridging the digital divide,” the spokesperson said. “We’re building a flexible, multi-purpose communications network to serve a variety of customers that will include space and government agencies, mobile operators, and emergency and disaster relief operations.”
Project Kuiper slowly moving out of the shadows
Project Kuiper launched in 2019 with a goal of creating a constellation of 3,236 satellites floating in low-Earth- orbit. Once completed, Amazon believes the constellation could provide fast and affordable broadband internet previously underserved regions around the globe. But the project has taken its sweet time to actually lift off. After more than four years, the company finally launched its first satellites into orbit in October. As of this month the company had reportedly ordered just 94 rocket launches according to CNBC.
SpaceX, Project Kuiper’s biggest rival, already has a huge head start. The company has reportedly launched more than 5,000 Starlink satellites into space and currently offers its satellite internet service to paying customers. In a surprise twist, Amazon recently struck a deal with its rival where it will use SpaceX rockets to quickly launch more Kuiper satellites into orbit
The new laser tests prove Amazon’s Project Kuiper is indeed much more than a wishful multi-billion dollar side quest. Whether or not it can ramp up satellite deployments in time to catch up with SpaceX, however, remains to be seen.
Correction 12/15/23: An earlier version of this story read that Amazon would bypass the need for a ground link.