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Amazon picks the rocket that’ll launch the first Kuiper satellites — and it’s not from Blue Origin

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An illustration shows an Atlas V rocket launching Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites. (ULA / Amazon)

United Launch Alliance says it’s struck a deal for a series of nine launches of its Atlas V rocket to send satellites into low Earth orbit for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

Amazon emphasized that this is just the first wave for a 3,236-satellite network that’s designed to offer broadband access to billions of people.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said today in a news release. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”

Neither ULA nor Amazon announced a schedule for the launches, but under the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission, half of the satellites have to be deployed by mid-2026.

Bezos is also the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, which is working on an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn. That rocket isn’t expected to go into service until late 2022.

In contrast, the Atlas V has successfully executed more than 80 launches since 2002. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, touted the Atlas V’s reputation as a “capable, reliable rocket.”

Badyal didn’t rule out selecting Blue Origin for a later round of launches. “We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” he said.

Because Bezos is the sole owner of privately held Blue Origin, publicly held Amazon has to navigate a careful path as it selects launch providers for Project Kuiper. Decisions that appear to favor Blue Origin could spark questions about self-dealing.

Amazon declined to provide details about the process that led to ULA’s selection, including details about the scope of Bezos’ involvement. Financial terms of the launch deal were not disclosed.

For what it’s worth, United Launch Alliance now has a business connection to Amazon’s Project Kuiper as well as to Blue Origin. ULA plans to use Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines on the first stage of its next-generation Vulcan rocket, which is due to make its debut at the end of this year.

The Atlas V’s first stage is designed to use Russian RD-180 engines, and it won’t switch to Blue Origin’s BE-4. But the Atlas era is nearing its end, in part due to limits on Russian rocket imports. A year ago, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the Atlas V would be phased out by 2024 or so, leaving Vulcan as ULA’s workhorse.

In an Amazon blog posting, Bruno praised Project Kuiper as “an ambitious project with the potential to connect tens of millions of people around the planet.”

“The scope and scale of the initiative will also provide an enormous boost to U.S. leadership in space, helping create jobs and providing steady, reliable demand for the launch services industry,” Bruno said. “We’re honored to have Amazon turn to ULA and Atlas V to support its deployment plans.”

Amazon is a relative latecomer to the satellite internet race: SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband constellation, and thousands of customers are using it under the terms of the company’s “Better Than Nothing” beta program.

Other emerging players in the satellite telecom market include OneWeb and Telesat, both of which have launch deals with Blue Origin; AST SpaceMobile; and Omnispace (in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, which also partners with Boeing in the ULA joint venture).

For years, Amazon, SpaceX and the others have been dueling over technicalities before the FCC, which is charged with licensing satellite constellations.

Several additional factors contribute to the Kuiper vs. Starlink rivalry: the long-running competition between Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk; the fact that Badyal was put in charge of Project Kuiper after being ousted from SpaceX; and the fact that both Kuiper and Starlink are headquartered in Redmond, Wash.

In today’s blog post, Amazon says Project Kuiper’s workforce has grown to more than 500 employees. Amazon’s career website lists nearly 200 open positions for Project Kuiper, with more than three-quarters of those openings in Redmond.

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