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Capella Space satellite
An artist’s conception shows Capella Space’s radar satellite in orbit. (Capella Space Illustration)

LAS VEGAS – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says his company has gotten so big that it has to branch out into business lines that “move the needle,” like the recently revealed Project Kuiper broadband satellite constellation.

But Project Kuiper isn’t Amazon’s only potentially needle-moving satellite venture: Amazon Web Services’ effort to create a network of ground stations and an easy-to-use satellite control interface is a similarly big bet for the Seattle-based company.

At least that’s how Shayn Hawthorne, general manager for AWS Ground Station, sees the situation.

“We really believe that we’re going to be a clearinghouse to provide ubiquitous communications to the world,” he told GeekWire during Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas. “Jeff’s talking about Kuiper in that context, and that’s a very specific use case. That’s a broadband internet provider to the world. But there’s going to be a whole lot of other mission areas that we want to bring into AWS and connect to the internet and the world as well.”

The first and the biggest mission area for AWS Ground Station has to do with Earth observation. That market is mushrooming, thanks to ventures such as Planet, Spire, Capella Space and Seattle’s own BlackSky geospatial intelligence venture. The potential applications include region-specific weather forecasting, crop monitoring, disaster response, urban planning and maritime and aviation tracking.

“We believe that all that data is going to be as important to our customers as internet connectivity,” Hawthorne said.

But it takes time to move the needle: AWS Ground Station officially raised the curtain on its cloud-based satellite control system just last month – two years after Hawthorne started the job. Two ground station installations are open for business in Ohio and Oregon, in close proximity to AWS data centers, and Hawthorne says the program is on track to have 10 more stations online by the end of the year.

Capella Space, a startup based in San Francisco that’s focusing on space-based radar observation, is already using the system to keep track of the satellite it’s had in orbit since last December. And several other ventures – including Maxar Technologies, Thales Alenia Space, Myriota, Spire Global, NSLComm, D-Orbit and Open Cosmos – say they’ll be working with AWS Ground Station as well.

Eventually, AWS expects to drive down the cost of satellite control services by as much as 80%. But the pace of progress depends on a range of factors, including site selection and construction as well as regulatory approvals.

A series of filings with the Federal Communications Commission hints at how much effort it takes to move the needle. Hawthorne said AWS and its partners are gradually working its way through the paperwork that’s required for all the services it plans to provide.

“There’s a really big amount of things that have to be reviewed and approved,” he said.

For example, Capella has been cleared to downlink telemetry from its satellite using Ground Station, but it’s still waiting for uplink clearance. In the meantime, the company is using resources from other companies to fill its communication needs, Capella Space CEO Payam Banazadeh told GeekWire.

At the same time that Hawthorne and his colleagues are working on getting permanent licenses, they’re putting in requests for special temporary authority from the FCC to phase in satellite links. “The outside counsel’s recommendation had been, ‘Don’t perturb your existing [applications for permanent] licenses while the process is ongoing,” Hawthorne explained.

As part of its effort to accelerate the ramp-up, AWS is working through the regulatory approvals at the same time that it’s selecting sites for ground installations and shipping the hardware.

“Believe it or not, we actually have antennas already on site at a couple of those ground stations,” Hawthorne said. “We have antennas in boats, on their way to other ground stations, because it takes a lot of planning and coordination. And then once you get to those countries, you have to work through importer of record, and a lot of other issues as well that you have to get to in order to legally bring hardware like that into the country and build your ground stations.”

For what it’s worth, Australia is reportedly on the list for future installations.

Hawthorne, who’s a veteran of the space industry, said he isn’t surprised by how much work it takes to get a ground station system fully up and running.

“We don’t feel like it’s going too slow,” he said. “We actually feel like it’s going the way that we had planned that it would go. … Of course we’d love it to go faster, but the FCC and all these other organizations have an incredible number of permits that they’re having to look at, licenses they’re having to evaluate. So I actually think they’ve given us very good service thus far.”

Will AWS use Ground Station to move data between Amazon Web Services’ data centers? “Not yet,” Hawthorne said. He noted that the program’s antennas are designed to communicate with Earth observation satellites in the X-band, S-band and UHF.

“If we were going to do what you are talking about – which in the long-range plan, we do envision doing – you typically would use geosynchronous satellites as your communications relays to get that information from one place to the other. And they function in Ka-, Ku- and C-band,” Hawthorne said.

Although Hawthorne said he couldn’t comment on what other folks at Amazon might be planning for Project Kuiper’s constellation, it’s worth noting that those satellites are thought to be likely to function in the Ka-band. So if AWS Ground Station has long-term plans to get into that part of the spectrum, it’s hard to avoid speculating that multiple needles on Amazon’s dials will be moving in the same direction: up.

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