Atlas 5 launches Amazon Kuiper satellites for tests of space-based internet service

An Atlas 5 lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Oct. 6, 2023 carrying the first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper internet service. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasted off Friday and boosted a pair of prototype internet satellites into orbit for Amazon’s Kuiper program, the latest entry in the increasingly competitive space-based broadband market currently dominated by SpaceX.

“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, said in a statement. “This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount.”

The Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine roared to life at 2:06 p.m. EDT, throttled up and smoothly powered the 196-foot-tall rocket away from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, arcing away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlas 5 climbs off the pad, powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

The rocket’s first stage fell away as planned after propelling the vehicle out of the dense lower atmosphere, and the flight continued with the Centaur upper stage. In a departure from normal practice for commercial, unclassified flights, ULA ended its realtime coverage shortly after stage separation, at the request of Amazon.

The rocket company did, however, confirm the successful deployment of the Kuipersat 1 and 2 prototypes.

In any case, Amazon Kuiper engineers planned to monitor deployment of the satellites’ solar panels and confirm on-board systems were performing normally. They also planned to test the program’s networking technology, relaying data to and from the satellites and ground “gateway” stations connected to the internet.

The Atlas 5 roars away from Cape Canaveral with the first Amazon Project Kuiper satellites. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

The launching came two days after arch-rival SpaceX, the clear leader in the space-based internet market, launched its 113th Starlink mission, boosting the total number of satellites launched to date to 5,222. Of that total, more than 4,800 are believed to be operating.

SpaceX now offers commercial service in countries around the world and plans to launch thousands more Starlinks in the years ahead to increase its global coverage.

Amazon plans to launch 3,236 Kuiper satellite, with internet service beginning after the first 578 data relay stations are in orbit. The company has signed contracts totaling $10 billion for 38 launches using ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, 18 flights of the European Ariane 6 booster and at least 12 using New Glenn rockets built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

All of those rockets are in development and none have yet flown.

“Our FCC (Federal Communications Commission) license requires that we deploy and operate at least half of our satellite constellation by July 2026,” the company says on its web page. “We expect to provide service to the earliest Project Kuiper customers by the end of 2024.”

The Kuiper satellites, SpaceX’s Starlinks and OneWeb’s higher-altitude relay stations, along with other systems now in the planning stages, are designed to provide broadband access anywhere in the world using large numbers of small satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The Atlas 5 roars away from pad 41 at 2:06 p.m. EDT on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

As the satellites race by overhead, they receive input from customers, relay the data satellite-to-satellite and then down to gateway ground stations tied into high-speed internet circuits. Responses are then relayed back to the customer, providing uninterrupted, relatively high-speed service.

The Kuiper program has released few details about its satellites other than to say they will be launched into three orbital shells at altitudes between 370 and 390 miles and that the first 578, making up phase 1, will populate orbital planes tilted 51.9 degrees to the equator.

“We’re designing the system to balance performance and affordability, and we plan to provide choice and flexibility by offering a range of options for customers,” the company says.

“Our ultra-compact (terminal) provides speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, our standard model delivers up to 400 Mbps and our largest model, which is intended for enterprise, government and telecommunications applications, delivers up to 1 gigabit per second.”

Amazon has not yet announced how much it will charge for Kuiper service, “but affordability is a key principle,” the company says.

“Amazon has a longstanding commitment to low prices, and lots of experience building popular, low-cost devices. … We’re applying a similar approach with Project Kuiper.”