Amazon has secured as many as 83 launches on three types of heavy-lift rockets to put more than 1,500 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation over the course of five years.
If Amazon follows through on all the reservations announced today, the campaign would carry a multibillion-dollar price tag and arguably represent the space industry’s largest launch procurement for a single commercial project.
“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said today in a news release. “This approach reduces risk associated with launch vehicle stand-downs and supports competitive long-term pricing for Amazon, producing cost savings that we can pass on to our customers.”
Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to offer satellite broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved. The $10 billion project has been in the works for three years, and won the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead in 2020. But it’s considered far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, which is already available on a limited basis.
Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are currently working on Kuiper, and the project’s careers website lists more than 300 open positions.
Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices & Services, said Project Kuiper is making good progress. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” he said. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”
Twelve launch reservations have been made with Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Those launches would use Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is closing in on a first launch in 2023 or later. Amazon also has an option to buy up to 15 additional New Glenn launches.
Amazon has reserved another 38 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is due to have its first liftoff as early as this year. Those missions would be in addition to nine previously reserved launches on ULA’s existing Atlas V rockets.
New Glenn and Vulcan are designed to lift off from separate launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Arianespace has agreed to set aside 18 launches of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which is due to make its debut as early as this year at the European consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the launch contract with Amazon is “the largest we’ve ever signed.”
The FCC license requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026, and today Amazon said its procurement plan should meet that schedule. That translates to more than 1,618 satellites, potentially launched by the nine Atlas V rockets and the rockets mentioned today.
To optimize the deployment of all those satellites, Amazon has turned to Beyond Gravity, a Swiss-based space technology company formerly known as RUAG Space. Beyond Gravity is in charge of designing and manufacturing the scalable satellite dispenser systems that will fly aboard the rockets.
RUAG International CEO André Wall said the Project Kuiper deal represents the largest order in Beyond Gravity’s history. To serve the partnership, Beyond Gravity is building a new dispenser production facility in Sweden.
Although it’s too late for Project Kuiper to beat Starlink to market, Amazon could take advantage of potential synergies with its other lines of business.
In today’s news release, Amazon said it would leverage its “global logistics and operations footprint, as well as Amazon Web Services’ networking and infrastructure, to serve a diverse, global customer base.” The company said it would also capitalize on its experience in building low-cost devices such as Echo and Kindle to deliver affordable broadband service via its lightweight customer terminals.
Slips in hardware development schedules could impede Project Kuiper’s progress: Amazon hasn’t said much so far about the timeline for building satellites. Moreover, not one of the rockets cited in today’s announcement — which was timed to coincide with this week’s Space Symposium in Colorado — has had its first flight yet.
At least one such slip may have happened already: Last November, Amazon announced that the first Project Kuiper prototype satellites would be launched into orbit late this year on yet another type of rocket, ABL Space Systems’ RS1. But in January, an anomaly that occurred during a rocket engine test in California set back ABL’s development schedule by several months.
As Badyal suggested in his comments, the large number of launch reservations may be a form of insurance to anticipate those sorts of setbacks — and cover Amazon’s multibillion-dollar bet.
Update for 4:15 p.m. PT April 6: In an industry brief for premium subscribers, Quilty Analytics says Project Kuiper “has become very real” because of the three-pronged launch deal. Quilty says the campaign, which it estimates will cost Amazon $5 billion, will provide a shot in the arm to heavy-lift launch companies that don’t happen to be named SpaceX.
During a Space Symposium panel, the top executives for the three launch companies revealed how many Kuiper satellites they could launch on each rocket: 35 to 40 for Arianespace’s Ariane 6, 61 for Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and 45 for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur.
Based on those figures, Quilty estimates that each Project Kuiper satellite weighs 600-700 kilograms (1,300-1,540 pounds), which would make them significantly more massive than the satellites fielded by SpaceX (260-300 kilograms) and OneWeb (150 kilograms).
Project Kuiper reportedly plans to build two to four satellites per day. That production capacity, plus the reserved launch capacity, would seem to be enough to fill out Amazon’s 3,236-satellite constellation in five years. That’s assuming, of course, that everything goes right.
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