Amazon buys nine Atlas 5 launches for Kuiper broadband constellation

Nine Atlas 5 rockets will launch satellites for Amazon’s Kuiper internet network. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Amazon has selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket for nine missions from Cape Canaveral to deploy satellites for the Kuiper internet constellation, a fleet designed to eventually number more than 3,200 spacecraft, the companies announced Monday.

The nine missions will lift off from ULA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, but officials did not reveal when they will launch. Amazon and ULA — a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — also did not disclose how many satellites will fly on each Atlas 5 mission, or which Atlas 5 rocket configuration will launch the Kuiper spacecraft.

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

Atlas 5 rockets have flown 86 times since 2002, all successfully, with payloads for the U.S. military, the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, NASA, and commercial customers.

Amazon and ULA did not disclose financial terms of the launch services agreement. On its website, ULA says the price for an Atlas 5 rocket launch starts at $109 million, suggesting the total value of the contract may exceed $1 billion.

The Kuiper network will beam low-latency Ka-band broadband services to customers between 56 degrees north and 56 degrees south latitude, according to Amazon. Half of the Kuiper network’s 3,236 satellites must be launched by mid-2026 for Amazon to maintain network authorization from the Federal Communications Commission.

The nine Atlas 5 missions are just a start. Amazon says it plans to use multiple types of launch vehicles from multiple companies to deploy the entire fleet of Kuiper satellites.

In its FCC filings, Amazon outlined a strategy to launch the Kuiper satellites in five phases, placing the spacecraft into orbital “shells” at altitudes between 366 miles (590 kilometers) and 391 miles (630 kilometers). The Kuiper satellites will fly in orbital planes, or pathways, inclined at 33 degrees, 42 degrees, and 51.9 degrees to the equator.

The first phase of the Kuiper deployment sequence will launch 578 satellites into 391-mile-high orbits with an inclination of 51.9 degrees, according to Amazon’s FCC filings.

The FCC approved Amazon’s Kuiper network last July. Amazon says it is investing $10 billion into the project, which is headquartered in Redmond, Washington, home to a Kuiper research, development, and manufacturing facility. More than 500 employees are currently working on the Kuiper project, according to Amazon.

Amazon has not revealed the size and mass of the Kuiper satellites.

“We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper. “Atlas 5 is a capable, reliable rocket, and we’re proud to be working with ULA to support these important first launches.”

“Project Kuiper is an ambitious project with the potential to connect tens of millions of people around the planet,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA. “The scope and scale of the initiative will also provide an enormous boost to U.S. leadership in space, helping create jobs and providing steady, reliable demand for the launch services industry. We’re honored to have Amazon turn to ULA and Atlas 5 to support its deployment plans.”

ULA is developing a next-generation rocket named the Vulcan Centaur to replace the company’s current Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket families. The first Vulcan test launch is scheduled at the end of this year.

ULA is ending production of Delta 4 rockets, and only four Delta 4 flights remain on ULA’s schedule through late 2023, including a Delta 4-Heavy launch scheduled April 26 from California.

The Atlas 5 will also be phased out, but ULA has said it plans to keep launching Atlas rockets in tandem with the early Vulcan launches for several years.

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won contracts from the U.S. military last year to launch a series of national security satellites through 2027. ULA’s Vulcan rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers will be the military’s primary heavy-lift launch providers during that time.

With the nine Kuiper missions now reserved with ULA, there are nearly 30 Atlas 5 missions in the company’s backlog.

Several companies are in the pool of commercial launch providers vying for Kuiper launches. Blue Origin, a space company also owned by Bezos, has said it will have to compete for Kuiper launch contracts, alongside ULA, Arianespace, and perhaps even SpaceX, which is deploying its own internet network in competition with Amazon’s Kuiper.

“We will continue to explore all options to launch the remainder of our satellite constellation, and we look forward to working with companies across the launch services industry to advance U.S. leadership in space and create jobs across the country,” Amazon said in a statement.

The Kuiper network will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink fleet, the OneWeb broadband system, Telesat’s planned Lightspeed network, and other future low Earth orbit constellations.

SpaceX has more than 1,300 active Starlink satellites in orbit, and their network is already providing intermittent services to users in advanced beta testing. The Starlink satellites launch on SpaceX’s own partially-reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

OneWeb is behind SpaceX, with 146 of its planned 648 internet satellites successfully launched on Russian Soyuz rockets. OneWeb aims to start limited commercial service by the end of this year.

Telesat plans to start launching its nearly 300 Lightspeed satellites next year.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.