Project Kuiper – Amazon’s space-based internet initiative – announced today that it has booked dozens of new launches on three different rockets to take its future satellites into orbit. The satellites will fly on powerful rockets that are currently being developed by European launch company Arianespace, the US-based United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The combined flights – up to 83 launches – are scheduled to take place over a five-year period and will allow Project Kuiper to launch the bulk of its planned group of 3,236 satellites. Amazon did not provide details on the cost of the launch contracts, but the company is investing billions of dollars across the three deals, according to James Watkins, a spokesperson for Project Kuiper. Amazon also claimed the deal “is the largest commercial purchase of launch vehicles in history.”
Project Kuiper needs a large amount of rockets in order to transport future giant planets into space. The Amazon subsidiary is planning to build a huge constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, designed to provide low-latency broadband Internet service to all parts of the world. To take advantage of the system, users must purchase one of the Project Kuiper user antennas, which the company previewed in late 2020. The stations scan the sky for satellites in the atmosphere. These satellites transmit signals from ground stations – facilities already connected to the fiber-optic Internet infrastructure – to and from the user’s antennas.
The concept is somewhat 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 a few years ahead of the Kuiper project. To date, SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 satellites into orbit and started limited service around the world, with 250,000 subscribers 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 the Atlas V missile based on United Launch Alliance’s workforce to dispatch. batches of satellites in orbit. And in November, Project Kuiper revealed its plans to launch the first two prototype satellites on a new experimental rocket called RS1 being developed by ABL Space Systems. The company expects those first prototype flights to occur in the last quarter of 2022, with a prototype satellite flying on every RS1 rocket. However, it depends on the timely readiness of RS1. ABL Space Systems suffered a test accident during development of the rocket in January, which pushed back the company’s timeline by three months, according to space news.
Nothing has changed regarding Project Kuiper’s agreement with ABL Space Systems, according to Atkins. Once these prototypes are launched, Project Kuiper will have the option to fly either the Atlas V or the three rockets in its new deal. The agreement covers launches on three rockets still in development: Ariane 6 from Ariane, ULA’s Vulcan, and New Glenn Blue Origin. Project Kuiper has booked 38 launches with ULA, 18 with Arianespace, and at least 12 with Blue Origin (with the option to buy 15 more times from the latter).
None of the three missiles had yet been launched, and their target launch was three years late. As of now, Arianespace and ULA expect to launch their rockets in late 2022, while Blue Origin doesn’t expect to fly to New Glenn until 2023 at the earliest.
Of the five rockets Amazon has used to launch its satellites, the Atlas V is the only one currently in operation. When the Arianespace, ULA, and Blue Origin rockets begin to fly, they should have much higher payload capabilities than the Atlas V, allowing Amazon to install more satellites on one rocket at a time. However, Project Kuiper does not disclose how many of its missiles can be placed in each vehicle.
First, Amazon needs to launch its prototypes with ABL. Then, the company will tweak the design of its final satellites before launching them in batches. Amazon won’t say what order the rockets it will use, but the company now has more than 90 different launches to choose from.