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Jeff Bezos and Amazon just hired everybody but SpaceX for Project Kuiper


A giant rocket is transported on its side to a launch pad.
Enlarge / Amazon is counting on the Vulcan rocket, a pathfinder for which is shown here, to deliver a large number of satellites into space.

Amazon on Tuesday announced the largest commercial launch deal ever. The company said it has finalized agreements with three different rocket companies for a total of 83 launches. The rockets will deploy a majority of Amazon’s low-Earth-orbit constellation of broadband satellites.

With this deal, Amazon has acquired an extraordinary amount of medium- and heavy-lift launch capacity over the next five years, procuring launches from every major Western provider except for its direct satellite competitor, SpaceX. Aside from SpaceX, this purchase represents the vast majority of any “spare” launch capacity for larger rockets in the United States or Europe over the next half-decade.

Amazon announced launch agreements with the following companies as it seeks to build out its constellation of 3,236 satellites:

  • Arianespace: 18 launches of Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket
  • Blue Origin: 12 launches of the company’s New Glenn rocket, with options for 15 additional launches
  • United Launch Alliance: 38 launches of the company’s Vulcan rocket

Additionally, Amazon previously announced that it has purchased the final nine Atlas V rocket launches from United Launch Alliance before that vehicle, which is powered by Russian engines, is retired.

Amazon’s “Project Kuiper” seeks to bring fast and affordable broadband Internet access to tens of millions of customers in unserved and underserved communities around the world. The company plans to launch two prototype satellites in the fourth quarter of 2022. Amazon has not set a date for when deployment of its operational constellation will begin, but a spokesperson said that will be shared after the demonstration mission later this year.

“We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for Devices & Services, said in a news release. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”

This is a hugely consequential deal, with myriad implications for the space industry. While Amazon officials would not talk costs, Amazon is likely paying at least $10 billion for these launches. That is a giant pot of money for the commercial launch industry.

Game on, SpaceX!

In building out its Project Kuiper constellation, Amazon is going head-to-head with SpaceX and its Starlink constellation. Based on the timing of its first launches, Amazon is running about four years behind SpaceX.

Amazon is also behind SpaceX because it does not have its own rocket, and no one in the industry can compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 on price or launch cadence. The Falcon 9 rocket could launch as many as 60 times this year, and because SpaceX can reuse the first stage and payload fairing, the internal cost per launch is probably substantially less than $30 million. Amazon is likely paying, on average, at least three times as much per launch.

Whether Amazon simply chose to avoid SpaceX or SpaceX said, “Thanks, but no thanks” is unclear. The former seems more likely, as SpaceX is working with another satellite competitor, OneWeb. Either way, by using other providers, Amazon is assuming some risk.

None of the three rockets that Amazon has chosen has proven itself in flight. Both the Ariane 6 and Vulcan rockets are probably about 12 months, plus or minus, from making their debut flights. New Glenn is probably at least two years from its first flight.

Amazon is asking a lot of these rockets. The company wants them to reach a high flight cadence during the mid-2020s in order to complete both their existing manifests as well as the additional Project Kuiper missions. For example, the Ariane 6 rocket was planned for six to nine launches a year, but with the Soyuz vehicle off the market for European satellites, it will now carry additional demand. How quickly will the Ariane 6 be able to accommodate three or more annual missions from Amazon?

At the same time, this is a huge shot in the arm to SpaceX’s primary Western launch competitors. The Falcon 9 rocket had already peeled away a substantial number of commercial launches from Arianespace and dozens of military and NASA launches from United Launch Alliance. Now, Jeff Bezos has showered these launch providers with cash as they scramble to compete with Elon Musk.

It will be fun to see which of these companies can execute on their new rockets in the coming years and quickly reach a high flight cadence. The safe bet is that not all three will make it.



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