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HomeNewsAmazon switches Project Kuiper prototype satellites to ULA’s first Vulcan launch

Amazon switches Project Kuiper prototype satellites to ULA’s first Vulcan launch

An artist’s conception shows a ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket launching Amazon’s satellites. (Amazon Illustration)

The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet network are now due to launch on the first-ever flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket early next year, rather than on ABL Space Systems’ rocket.

Today’s announcement comes in the wake of schedule slips for ABL as well as for United Launch Alliance — slips that mean ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule lines up better with Amazon’s satellite deployment schedule.

The prototypes — known as Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 — are designed to test how the different components of a full 3,236-satellite constellation will work together. Amazon will use the results of this test to refine the design of its production satellites.

“Our prototype satellites will be ready this year, and we look forward to flying with ULA,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, said today in an Amazon update.

The original plan called for the Kuipersats to launch this year on one of the first flights of ABL’s RS1 rocket — but California-based ABL ran into delays in its test program, resulting in schedule shifts. ULA announced this week that it will delay the launch of the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket because Astrobotic, its primary payload customer requested it.

ULA said Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic asked for more time to finish work on its Peregrine lunar lander, which was chosen to fly to the moon as the first mission for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The launch had been set for late 2022, but it’s now planned for the first quarter of 2023. Kuipersats will go into low Earth orbit to serve as secondary payloads.

Vulcan’s liftoff would mark the first use of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines — which are produced by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ privately held space venture in Kent, Wash., and were just delivered to ULA After years of delays.

Switching from ABL to ULA isn’t all that much of a stretch. Amazon and ULA made a deal last year to launch Kuiper production satellites from Atlas 5 rockets. Vulcan launches will follow.

“We’ve already secured 38 Kuiper launches on Vulcan, and using the same launch vehicle for our prototype mission gives us a chance to practice payload integration, processing, and mission management procedures ahead of those full-scale commercial launches,” Badyal said.

Amazon has made reservations for scores of additional launches on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Arianespace’s Ariane 6, adding up to as many as 92 liftoffs in all. ABL also has two reserved launch slots that Amazon will fly at a later date.

Project Kuiper hasn’t laid out a detailed schedule for satellite deployment or the start of service — but under the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission, half of the 3,236 planned satellites have to be in operation by 2026.

Amazon stated that it planned to spend over $10 billion on Project Kuiper when the license was first issued. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are working on the satellite effort, with most of them based at Project Kuiper’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Amazon’s career website lists more than 300 open positions for the project.

Project Kuiper aims to increase broadband internet access for millions of underserved people all over the globe. But in the market for satellite data services from low Earth orbit, Amazon is far behind SpaceX’s Starlink service, which already has thousands of satellites in orbit and hundreds of thousands of subscribers. OneWeb, an international company with over 400 satellites orbiting the earth, is also ahead Amazon. OneWeb plans to increase service in the next year.

Amazon is hoping that synergies with its other business lines — such as Amazon Web Services — will give it an advantage, even as a relative latecomer.

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