Project Kuiper – Amazon’s planned internet-from-space initiative – announced today that it has booked dozens of new launches on three different rockets to put its future satellites into orbit. The satellites will fly on powerful rockets currently being developed by European launch provider Arianespace, US-based United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin, the space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The combined flights – up to 83 launches in total – are expected to take place over a five-year period and will allow Project Kuiper to launch the bulk of its planned constellation of 3,236 satellites. Amazon did not provide details on the cost of the launch contracts, but the company is investing billions of dollars in all three deals, according to Project Kuiper spokesman James Watkins. Amazon also claimed the deal “is the largest commercial purchase of launch vehicles in history.”
The Kuiper project needs a lot of rockets to send its future megaconstellation into space. The Amazon subsidiary plans to create a wide range of low-Earth-orbit satellites designed to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet service to all parts of the globe. To operate the system, users must purchase one of Project Kuiper’s user antennas, which the company previewed in late 2020. The terminals scan the sky, looking for satellites overhead. These satellites relay signals from ground stations – facilities already connected to existing fiber optic Internet infrastructure – to and from user antennas.
The concept is quite similar to SpaceX’s growing Starlink program – a planned constellation of tens of thousands of satellites also designed to provide high-speed internet access from low Earth orbit. However, Starlink is already several years ahead of Project Kuiper. So far, SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 satellites into orbit and started limited service worldwide, with 250,000 subscribers connected to the system so far, according to SpaceX. Project Kuiper has not yet launched any of its satellites.
However, the company hopes to change that this year. A year ago, Amazon announced that it had purchased nine Atlas V rocket launches from United Launch Alliance to send batches of satellites in orbit. And in November, Project Kuiper revealed plans to launch its first two prototype satellites on a new experimental rocket called RS1 being developed by startup ABL Space Systems. The company expects these first prototype flights to take place in the fourth quarter of 2022, with a prototype satellite flying on each RS1 rocket. However, this depends on the RS1 being ready in time. ABL Space Systems suffered a test accident during development of the rocket in January, which delayed the company’s schedule by three months, according to Space News.
Nothing has changed regarding Project Kuiper’s deal with ABL Space Systems, according to Watkins. Once these first prototype launches have been made, Project Kuiper has the option of flying either the Atlas V or the three rockets of its new contract. The agreement concerns the launches of three rockets still in development: Ariane 6 from Arianespace, Vulcan from ULA and New Glenn from Blue Origin. The Kuiper project has reserved 38 launches with ULA, 18 with Arianespace and at least 12 with Blue Origin (with the possibility of buying 15 more from the latter).
None of the three rockets have launched yet, and all three have been delayed years beyond their intended debut. Currently, Arianespace and ULA plan to launch their rockets in late 2022, while Blue Origin does not plan to fly New Glenn until 2023 at the earliest.
Of the five rockets used by Amazon to launch its satellites, the Atlas V is the only rocket currently operational. However, when the Arianespace, ULA, and Blue Origin rockets start flying, they should have much higher carrying capacities than the Atlas V, allowing Amazon to fit more satellites on a rocket at a time. However, Project Kuiper does not yet disclose how many of its rockets can fit on each vehicle.
First, Amazon must launch its prototypes with ABL. After that, the company will tweak the design of its final satellites before launching them in batches. Amazon won’t say which order of rockets it will use, but now the company potentially has more than 90 different launches to choose from.