Amazon Orders Record Number of Launches for Kuiper Satellite Constellation

Amazon Orders Record Number of Launches for Kuiper Satellite Constellation

Three top U.S. and European launch service providers have won contracts to launch more than 3,000 satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, a constellation of satellites to provide global high-speed broadband services. It will be a competitor to SpaceX’s better-known Starlink system and SpaceX notably is not included in the deal.

The massive order for up to 83 launches over five years was announced today in conjunction with the Space Symposium  in Colorado Springs, CO. Amazon called it the “largest commercial procurement of space launch services in history.”

The United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, won 38 launches of its new Vulcan rocket. The order is in addition to nine launches for Amazon of ULA’s existing Atlas V rocket, which Vulcan will replace. “We are honored to be entrusted with the majority of Amazon’s launches with a total of 47 missions,” ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno said.

Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, who also founded Amazon but stepped away from its leadership last year, got an order for 12 launches of its New Glenn rocket, with an option for 15 more.  Jarrett Jones, Senior Vice President, New Glenn at Blue Origin said they are “honored to support Amazon’s” Kuiper mission.

Europe’s Arianespace was awarded 18 launches of its Ariane 6 rocket. CEO Stéphane Israël said the contract is “the largest we’ve ever signed” and “a great moment in Arianespace’s history.”

Credit: Amazon

One commonality is that none of those rockets has flown yet. Vulcan and Ariane 6 could debut later this year. Blue Origin’s New Glenn is expected to make its first flight next year.

Vulcan and New Glenn use the same engines, BE-4, designed and produced by Blue Origin. ULA and Blue Origin signed an initial agreement for the BE-4 in 2014 and firmed it up in 2018. Development and production issues have delayed delivery, but both companies express optimism that they are close.

Blue Origin already launches the suborbital New Shepard rocket, with or without passengers, but it uses a completely different engine, the BE-3. It is fueled with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and Liquid Hydrogen, while BE-4 uses LOX and methane (liquified natural gas).

Several companies are planning constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites to provide high-speed Internet services around the world. SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb, majority-owned by the U.K. government and India’s Bharti Global, are furthest along in getting their systems into orbit.

SpaceX is getting a lot of publicity for providing Starlink terminals to Ukrainians suffering from the war with Russia. Conversely, OneWeb is experiencing a setback because it planned to launch all 648 of its satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets, but those plans were scuttled after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite competing with SpaceX in the satellite broadband market, OneWeb nevertheless is purchasing SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches to substitute for Soyuz.

How many of these satellite broadband systems will prove profitable remains to be seen, but Amazon’s plan is to launch 3,236 satellites. That’s a lot compared to OneWeb, but SpaceX is planning 42,000 Starlink satellites. While many are skeptical it will be built, Rwanda has filed an application with the International Telecommunication Union for a system with 327,320 satellites.

Amazon Senior Vice President Dave Limp said these “launch agreements reflect our incredible belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission. … Securing launch capacity from multiple providers reduces scheduling risk and helps us secure competitive, long-term pricing that we can pass on to Project Kuiper customers as cost savings.”

Amazon plans to launch two prototype satellites, KuiperSat-1 and Kuipersat-2, by the end of this year on ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket. The schedule for all the other launches was not announced, but its FCC license requires that half the constellation be launched by July 30, 2026 and the remainder by July 30, 2029.

Amazon says it is investing more than $10 billion in the project.

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