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, the United Launch Alliance of the United States and Blue Origin, the space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The combined flights, up to a total of 83 launches, will take place over a five-year period and will allow Project Kuiper to launch most of its planned constellation of 3,236 satellites. Amazon did not provide details on how much the launch contracts cost, but the company is pouring billions of dollars into the three deals, according to James Watkins, a spokesman for Project Kuiper. Amazon also claimed that the deal “is the largest commercial acquisition of launch vehicles in history.”
Project Kuiper needs quite a bit of rocketry to get its future mega-constellation into space. The Amazon subsidiary plans to create a massive array of satellites in low-Earth orbit, designed to deliver low-latency broadband Internet service to all parts of the world. To access the system, users must purchase one of Project Kuiper’s user antennas, which the company introduced in late 2020. The terminals scan the sky for satellites overhead. Those satellites transmit signals from ground stations, facilities already connected to the existing fiber optic Internet infrastructure, to and from user antennas.
The concept is quite similar to SpaceX’s ever-growing Starlink program: a planned constellation of tens of thousands of satellites also designed to provide broadband internet 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 has started limited service around the world. 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 launches of United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas V to ship lots of satellites in orbit. And in November, the Kuiper Project revealed its 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 those first prototype flights to occur in the fourth quarter of 2022, with a prototype satellite flying on each RS1 rocket. However, that depends on the RS1 being ready in time. ABL Space Systems suffered a testing mishap during development of the rocket in January, which pushed the company’s schedule three months back. according to space news.
Nothing has changed regarding Project Kuiper’s deal with ABL Space Systems, according to Watkins. Once those first prototype launches take place, Project Kuiper will have the option of flying the Atlas V or all three rockets in its new deal. The agreement covers launches of three rockets still in development: Arianespace’s Ariane 6, ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Project Kuiper has booked 38 launches with ULA, 18 with Arianespace, and at least 12 with Blue Origin (with the option to buy another 15 from the latter).
None of the three rockets have yet to launch, and all three have been delayed years beyond their target debut. From now on, both arianespace and ULA expect to launch their rockets in late 2022, while Blue Origin does not expect to fly New Glenn until 2023 at the earliest.
Among the five rockets that Amazon has used to launch its satellites, the Atlas V is the only rocket currently operational. However, when rockets from Arianespace, ULA and Blue Origin start flying, they should have much higher payload capacities than the Atlas V, allowing Amazon to fit more satellites on a rocket at once. However, Project Kuiper has yet to reveal how many of its rockets can fit on each vehicle.
First, Amazon needs to launch its prototypes with ABL. After that, the company will modify the design of its final satellites before launching them in batches. Amazon won’t say which order of rockets it will use, but the company now has potentially more than 90 different launches to choose from.