Amazon, one of the world's largest e-commerce companies, has been moving quickly to cement its internet connectivity and broadband service - called Project Kuiper. While Kuiper isn’t yet fully functional, the company has poured billions of dollars into the project as it looks to leverage its infrastructure to provide better internet services to millions worldwide.
To that end, Amazon recently made a big splash as it secured launches that will drive Project Kuiper forward.
Contracts For Everybody (Except SpaceX)
Earlier this month, Amazon confirmed that it, through Project Kuiper, had signed what could be the largest commercial launch deal ever. According to an official press release, the ecommerce giant confirmed that it had inked deals with European space launch service provider Arianespace, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), and Blue Origin - the private aerospace company founded by Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos.
The deals inked would cover a total of 83 flights. According to the terms of the deals, Arianespace will handle 18 launches for Project Kuiper using its new Ariane 6 rocket. The ULA, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will handle 38 launches with its Vulcan rocket, while Blue Origin will provide the infrastructure for 12 launches on its New Glenn rocket. The Blue Origin deal comes with an additional option of 15 more launches, most likely contingent on the success of the first 12.
All of the flights are expected to take place within the next five years. Success with them will allow Project Kuiper to launch the vast majority of its planned constellation - which numbers about 3,236 rockets. Amazon didn’t disclose how much it would spend on the launches, but a spokesperson confirmed to reporters that the deals were worth billions combined.
Project Kuiper’s objective is similar to that of Starlink, SpaceX’s internet connectivity project. It is looking to build a constellation of satellites that will deliver high-speed internet connectivity to millions worldwide - especially in regions of historically low internet speeds and inadequate internet penetration rates.
To tap into the provided connection, users would need to purchase an antenna for Project Kuiper. The antenna’s terminals will scan the sky in search of overhead satellites, which will relay signals from ground stations to and from the antennas.
Finishing Touches On A Mega Project
As explained, the concept is fairly similar to that of Starlink. However, while Kuiper is still putting the finishing touches on its program, Starlink already has over 2,500 satellites in space and provides internet access to some regions. On the flip side, Kuiper has no satellites in space for now.
Regardless, Kuiper and Amazon would be looking to change that. A year ago, Amazon purchased nine launches using the ULA’s Atlas V rocket to drive the first set of Kuiper satellite launches. In November, Kuiper confirmed plans to launch its first two prototype satellites on the RS1 - an experimental new rocket. The developers are looking at a possible launch in the fourth quarter of 2022, with each rocket flying a prototype satellite.
Still, the success of the launches will depend on the availability of the RS1 rocket. ABL Space Systems - the company developing the rockets - suffered a mishap during testing back in January. According to reports, ABL had been in the middle of a testing procedure when an anomaly caused a complete destruction of the stage. The accident caused a massive cloud of smoke, prompting a swift response from local fire authorities.
No injuries or casualties were reported during the mishap, but it was confirmed that the RS1 launch would be delayed by three months as a consequence. Harry O’Hanley, ABL’s chief executive of ABL, explained that one of the stage’s vacuum engines had suffered a hard start, which caused massive damage to the rocket.
Amazon appears to be taking a more rampant approach to launches than SpaceX. While the Starlink project has historically approached launches in batches, it looks more likely that Kuiper will want to launch more rapidly. It will definitely need to do so if it hopes to match Starlink, which is already operational.
Another point to note is that all of the deals signed by Amazon are for rockets that are still in their final stages of production. So, the goal would most likely be for the first set of rockets from ABL Systems to be ready before Amazon begins to fly the real Kuiper satellites on either the Ariane 6, Vulcan, or New Glenn.