Amazon’s next new business may be in orbit, but first it will grow Washington’s commercial space industry.
The company plans to launch a constellation of satellites to provide global broadband internet connectivity — and said Wednesday that research, development and prototype manufacturing will be based in Redmond.
The Seattle technology and commerce giant faces a crowded field of satellite broadband competitors, including Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which opened a Redmond office in 2015 for its Starlink project. SpaceX has put 120 broadband satellites into orbit this year.
By placing its “primary headquarters” for the satellite effort in Redmond, Amazon adds to the region’s substantial cluster of commercial space and satellite businesses, which include Aerojet Rocketdyne, Tethers Unlimited and Spaceflight Industries and its satellite service BlackSky.
“There’s a great deal of activity, and I’m seeing it grow quite a bit,” said professor Kristi Morgansen, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “There’s everything from long-established companies through things that have been around about two weeks.”
She met recently with officials from that nascent company, which is planning to launch satellites that would service other orbiting satellites, she said, underscoring the anticipated growth. Starlink aims to have as many as 12,000 satellites in orbit, and Amazon could launch more than 3,200, according to regulatory filings.
The growth of commercial satellites promises improvements in communications and new applications in areas such as agriculture and disaster response, Morgansen said. But the proliferation of objects in orbit also presents challenges such as growing amounts of space debris and interference with astronomy.
Amid the current wave of commercial space endeavors, the satellite broadband business that Amazon and its competitors are pursuing is familiar in this region.
Around the time Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in a Bellevue home in 1994, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and wireless-communications pioneer Craig McCaw were planning to pour billions of dollars into Teledesic, which sought to launch a constellation of satellites at the beginning of the internet boom.
“The vision was very similar to what you have today,” said Tim Farrar, a satellite-communications consultant and researcher who worked on the project.
Since then, he said, satellite-communications technology has advanced significantly. Satellites today are cheaper and can handle more data. There’s also a growing industry providing satellite launch services, including SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture. Bezos’ Kent-based Blue Origin is expected to fly its New Glenn orbital rocket in 2021. (An Amazon spokesman said the company would look at all options for launch services.)
Farrar said a challenge for Amazon and its competitors is that ground-based broadband technology has advanced even further in the last two decades, calling into question the satellite-broadband business model, particularly as new, high-speed wireless connections such as 5G become available. In underserved and developing markets that satellite-broadband providers are targeting, cellular-network operators are already investing heavily and have a big lead, he said.
“We can build something a lot better, but what will people pay for?” he said.
Amazon said in a Wednesday blog post that its Project Kuiper team is “passionate about bridging the digital divide” and “has made significant progress towards our goal to serve tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet.” The company declined an interview request.
Farrar sees a number of potential uses of a satellite constellation beyond internet connectivity for Amazon, with its multifaceted businesses in logistics, cloud computing and government contracting.
“Serving ships and planes and the government, defense forces — things like that that are still sizeable markets,” he said.
Last year, for example, Amazon began a service that lets its cloud-computing customers directly download satellite data into Amazon Web Services. But Farrar views efforts like Project Kuiper in the context of Bezos’ grander ambitions.
“There is a level of excitement about space that precedes the consideration of whether there’s a real business plan here,” Farrar said.
Bezos and other billionaires want to see human civilization expand into space, with millions of people living and working there.
“If you’re going to have things like people living in space as he wants, you’re going to need communications technologies, too,” Farrar said.
Amazon has 167 job openings related to Project Kuiper posted on its website, including for spacecraft structural engineers, machine-shop managers and hardware-procurement experts. About 137 of those jobs are listed in Bellevue currently. The Amazon spokesman declined to specify the size of the Project Kuiper team or provide timelines for launching satellites.
Amazon said Project Kuiper will move next year into a 219,000-square-foot space — about the size of four football fields — it’s renovating in Redmond. The company appears to have leased a pair of buildings in the Redmond Commerce Center, formerly occupied by Genie Industries, according to a real-estate source. The Amazon spokesman and the listing agent for the property declined to confirm the location as the Project Kuiper site.
The Washington Department of Commerce, which has touted development of commercial space businesses in recent years, has estimated some 6,200 people work in the industry in the state.
Morgansen, the UW professor who also co-directs the university’s multidisciplinary Space Policy and Research Center, said the region needs to grow engineering education programs at both the university and community-college levels to meet the demand from expanding space companies.
“There are plenty of qualified people,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting them the training, and the capacity is a real problem.”
Seattle Times business reporter Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.