Amazon’s first Internet satellites will not launch on Blue Origin rockets

An Atlas V rocket launches in December 2012.
Enlarge / An Atlas V rocket launches in December 2012.
United Launch Alliance

Amazon announced on Monday that its first Project Kuiper satellites will launch into low Earth orbit on an Atlas V rocket.

The announcement provides concrete evidence that the ambitious Internet-from-space project is making progress. It is also notable for the choice of launch vehicle—Amazon is not employing the New Glenn rocket, which is under development by Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin.

Amazon did not say when the first launch will occur, but the company said it had contracted with United Launch Alliance for nine launches to begin building out its constellation of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit. A spokesman declined to say how many of the satellites each Atlas V rocket would be capable of launching.

In a blog post, Amazon said it had chosen ULA’s Atlas V rocket for its high reliability. The Atlas V missions will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and chief executive. “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.”

With the Atlas V launch vehicle, Amazon has chosen a US rocket that ranks second in flight experience among active boosters. The Atlas V rocket has launched 85 times, compared to 113 missions flown by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Although SpaceX’s vehicle would have cost less, it seems unlikely that Amazon would support a competitor in the race to establish a satellite Internet constellation, as SpaceX is doing with its Starlink system.

In United Launch Alliance, Bezos has both a partner and a competitor. As part of a long-standing agreement, Blue Origin is building the BE-4 rocket engines that will power ULA’s next-generation rocket, called Vulcan.

However, Blue Origin is also developing its own large rocket, New Glenn, which will also use BE-4 engines to power its first stage. The Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will directly compete for national security launches as well as commercial satellites.

Choice of rockets

Based upon its license with the Federal Communications Commission, Amazon must launch at least 50 percent of its proposed constellation by July 2026. News releases from Amazon and United Launch Alliance are silent on the choice of the Atlas V instead of New Glenn or Vulcan to begin launching satellites before this deadline. “We will need multiple launch vehicles and launch partners to support our deployment schedule,” the company’s blog post states.

The Atlas V vehicle uses Russian-made engines, and it’s being phased out over the next several years. However, ULA has enough of the RD-180 engines on hand to support more than a dozen commercial flights, and aside from launching the Starliner spacecraft for Boeing, the Atlas V had relatively few private flights on its manifest before this Project Kuiper announcement.

It’s quite possible that Blue Origin’s New Glenn will not be completed in time, at least for initial deployment of the constellation. Blue Origin recently announced that New Glenn will not make its debut launch until the fourth quarter of 2022, and that date is widely expected to slip at least into early 2023.

As for Vulcan, it should be ready sooner than New Glenn. ULA chief Tory Bruno said the company is on track to launch Vulcan this year, but sources suggest that goal is overly optimistic. However, the rocket should be entering commercial service in late 2022 or 2023, and ULA has touted it as costing less than the Atlas V rocket. So it’s interesting that Amazon selected the Atlas V for its initial Project Kuiper launches.

Amazon says it has invested $10 billion in Project Kuiper and that there are now more than 500 people working on the project. In addition to developing its satellites, the company says it is focused on designing a “compact, low-cost” customer terminal antenna, which is used to send and receive Internet signals from space.

In terms of deploying satellites into orbit, Amazon is behind at least two competitors. SpaceX, using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, already has nearly 1,400 Starlink satellites active in low-Earth orbit and has begun a “beta” program for some customers in remote areas of North America. OneWeb has 146 satellites in orbit, thanks mostly to Russian Soyuz launch vehicles, and it’s hoping to begin commercial service late this year.