Amazon’s proposed broadband satellite constellation, Project Kuiper, has inched closer to making it into orbit, even if some of the rockets it intends to use have yet to take their first flights.
On Tuesday Amazon announced deals with Arianespace, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ pet project) to launch the majority of its 3,236 Kuiper satellites into low Earth orbit. “It is the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history,” the web giant modestly proclaimed.
The biz did not disclose timings, nor did it state how many of the Kuiper satellites would be riding on each rocket. However, it did say it had secured 18 Ariane 6 rockets as part of the initial agreement, “the largest we’ve ever signed,” according to Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace.
Another 38 launches will be on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, a figure in addition to the existing nine Atlas V rockets already procured for Project Kuiper from the orbital biz. ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno noted: “We are proud to launch the majority of this important constellation.”
Finally, Blue Origin has been signed up for 12 launches using the yet-to-fly New Glenn rocket, with options for a further 15. Unlike ULA’s launcher and the Ariane 6, the first stage of the New Glenn is expected to be reusable.
Ignoring the obvious option
As is the SpaceX Falcon 9, which was conspicuous in its absence from Amazon’s shopping basket. Rival constellation slinger OneWeb has already turned to SpaceX after its rides to orbit fell victim to sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
Although it is unclear when the bulk of the launches will take place (the FCC approved the plan in 2020) Amazon intends rattle through the missions during a five-year period.
Ambitious, considering that aside from the Atlas V (which has reached the end of the line, bar those missions already scheduled) none of the selected launchers has troubled a launchpad as yet. The replacement for the workhorse Ariane 5, the Ariane 6, is unlikely to make its maiden flight before 2023. The New Glenn is similarly unlikely to fly before 2023.
And the Vulcan Centaur?
A 2022 first flight of the Atlas V replacement is dependent on delivery of a set of flightworthy BE-4 engines from Blue Origin which, at time of writing, have yet to be supplied.
Time is getting tight for Amazon. A glance at its FCC license shows that it must have half of the Project Kuiper satellites in orbit “no later than July 30, 2026.” The rest must join them by July 30, 2029.
With SpaceX’s Falcon 9 seemingly out of the running, Amazon is more dependent than ever on fellow Bezos company Blue Origin making good on those BE-4 engines. ®