The prototype satellites, part of Amazon’s Kuiper system that would beam the internet to ground stations, were originally scheduled to launch by the end of this year with rocket start-up ABL Space Systems. But delays and the ability to launch with ULA, which was already under contract for 47 satellite launches for Amazon, forced the company to switch rockets, said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper.
Amazon has permission from the Federal Communications Commission to set up 3,236 satellites, helping to connect people without easy broadband access as it seeks to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink system. The company has pledged to invest more than $10 billion in a system which, he says, will serve not only individual households, but also schools, hospitals and businesses that lack access to reliable broadband. Badyal said Amazon now has 1,000 people working on the project as it seeks to grab a slice of the lucrative internet market in the space. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“It’s absolutely a business-critical program,” he said, adding that “there are over a billion people on Earth without reliable broadband.” Being able to connect “the unserved and the underserved around the planet,” he said, “is really an important part of what we do.”
To meet its FCC license requirements, Amazon must deploy half of the constellation by 2026. Badyal said the company is on track to meet that requirement.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, however, already has a constellation of more than 3,100 satellites in orbit. Its Starlink system works in more than 30 countries and has built a large customer base, Musk said. In August, it announced a deal with T-Mobile that would allow the cellphone company’s phones to connect directly to Starlink satellites, a service the companies said would largely eliminate dead zones.
Even though SpaceX was the first to deploy its constellation, Badyal said the market for internet services is huge and could support more than one company. “We’re going to need multiple constellations to serve these customers.”
Amazon, he said, “is building new, extremely advanced technologies, and a lot of our focus has been on: how do we reduce costs for our customers? In the long term, we believe what we are doing will result in much greater capacity, much higher bandwidth, and, in fact, much lower prices for our customers. It’s our DNA.
For ULA, which for years has leased sensitive satellites for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, the partnership with Amazon gives it a foothold in the commercial launch market, also dominated by SpaceX.
The company has developed Vulcan, its next-generation rocket, which it says will become the workhorse when the Atlas V, which relies on a Russian-made engine, is retired. Vulcan has been repeatedly delayed, largely because its engine, the BE-4, is years behind schedule. This engine is developed by another Bezos company, Blue Origin. Despite the setbacks, ULA said there has been tremendous progress recently and Vulcan is on track to launch for the first time in the first quarter of next year.
The primary payload for this flight would be a robotic spacecraft, known as the Peregrine, 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.
The ULA is under pressure to fly Vulcan because the Space Force intends to use it to launch national security satellites. But before Vulcan can launch the Department of Defense’s first mission, scheduled for late 2023, ULA must launch the rocket twice to prove it’s reliable.
Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, said in an interview that the company is “confident that we have enough time” to complete both launches and analyze the data to meet the Space Force schedule.
In June, Frank Calvelli, the newly installed Space Force acquisition chief, said preparing Vulcan to launch Pentagon satellites was a national security priority, and one of his first trips was to visit ULA to follow its progress.
“I’m going there on one of my first visits to the industry to make sure they know it’s really critical that they launch this year in December like they’ve committed to, that ‘they get delivery of these engines,’ he said. according to SpaceNews. “So I’m going out there as an education to learn and to make sure Blue Origin and ULA know how essential that is.”