Amazon to launch first of Kuiper Internet satellites on ULA rocket

The first two satellites in Amazon’s space-based Internet constellation will be launched early next year on the maiden flight of a new rocket being developed by one of the US Space Force’s largest contractors.

In an announcement on Wednesday, Amazon said it would fly on the new Vulcan rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The prototype satellites, part of Amazon’s Kuiper system that would transmit the internet to stations on the ground, were originally scheduled to be launched by rocket startup ABL Space Systems by the end of this year. But delays and the possibility of launching with ULA, which has already been contracted for 47 satellite launches for Amazon, forced the company to switch rockets, Rajeev Baydal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, said in an interview.

Amazon has permission from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy 3,236 satellites to connect people without easy access to broadband as it seeks to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink system. The company has pledged to invest more than $10 billion in a system it says will serve not only individual homes, but also schools, hospitals and businesses that don’t have access to reliable broadband. Baydal said Amazon now has 1,000 people working on the project as it seeks to capture a chunk of the lucrative internet market that is entrenching itself in space. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

“It’s an absolutely critical program for the company,” he said, adding, “There are over a billion people on the planet without reliable broadband.” To be able “to connect the unserved and underserved around the world connecting, that’s really an important part of what we do.”

To meet obligations under its FCC license, Amazon must deploy half of the constellation by 2026. Baydal said the company is on track to meet that requirement.

However, Elon Musk’s SpaceX already has a constellation of more than 3,100 satellites in orbit. Its Starlink system is operational in more than 30 countries and has built a broad customer base, Musk said. In August, he announced a deal with T-Mobile that would allow the wireless company’s phones to connect directly to Starlink satellites, a service the companies said would largely eliminate dead spots.

Although SpaceX was the first to deploy its constellation, Baydal said the internet services market is huge and could support more than one company: “We will need multiple constellations to serve these customers.”

Amazon, he said, “is building extremely advanced new technology, and a lot of our focus is on how we can reduce costs for our customers. In the longer term, we believe our actions will result in much more capacity, much higher bandwidth, and indeed much lower prices for our customers. That is our DNA.”

For ULA, which has been lofting sensitive satellites for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies for years, the partnership with Amazon gives the company a foothold in the commercial launch market, also dominated by SpaceX.

The company has developed Vulcan, its next-generation rocket that it says will become the workhorse when it retires the Atlas V, which is based on a Russian-made engine. Vulcan has been repeatedly delayed, in large part because its powerplant, the BE-4, is years late. This motor is being developed by another Bezos company, Blue Origin. Despite the setbacks, ULA said there has been tremendous progress recently and that Vulcan is on track to make its debut in the first quarter of next year.

The main payload of this flight would be a robotic spacecraft called Peregrine, which is being built by Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based aerospace company. Peregrine would land on the moon as part of a NASA mission, while Amazon’s satellites would be deployed earlier in low Earth orbit.

ULA is under pressure to get Vulcan flying because the Space Force intends to use it to launch national security satellites. But before Vulcan can launch the first DoD mission, scheduled for late 2023, ULA will need to launch the missile twice to prove it’s reliable.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, said in an interview that the company is “confident that we have enough time” to conduct both launches and analyze the data to meet Space Force’s schedule.

In June, Frank Calvelli, the Space Force’s newly installed chief of acquisitions, said that preparing Vulcan for launch of Pentagon satellites was a national security priority, and one of his first trips was to visit ULA to monitor progress.

“I’m going there as one of my first industry visits to make sure they know it’s really important that they launch in December this year as they’re committed to getting these engines delivered,” he said, according to SpaceNews. “So I’m going there to learn and make sure both Blue Origin and ULA understand how important this is.”