Amazon buys three launches from SpaceX for rival internet constellation

A pair of prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper internet constellation are encapsulated in a pair of payload fairings for launch aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket. Image: ULA

Tech giant Amazon is adding a fifth rocket to launch its satellite internet constellation. In a surprise move on Friday afternoon, the company announced it purchased three flights aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets to send batched of its Project Kuiper satellites to low Earth orbit.

The news was unexpected by many since the launch company, owned by Elon Musk, was previously left out of an historically large launch purchase when Amazon acquired 77 launches using Arianespace’s Ariane 6, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rockets in spring 2022.

This purchase was on top of the previously announced nine launches using ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. The first of these nine was used to launch the first two prototype satellites in October due to Vulcan delays.

In a blog post, Amazon stated that it three flights on board Falcon 9 rockets would start in mid-2025 and would “offer even more capacity to support our deployment schedule.” Spaceflight Now reached out to Amazon for further details, but a spokesperson said the blog post was the extent of their statement on Project Kuiper for the time being.

Ticking clock

Amazon is up against the clock when it comes to getting its Project Kuiper constellation deployed. The company needs to launch 1,618 Kuiper satellites, or half of its planned first-generation constellation, into orbit by July 30, 2026 in order to meet a mandatory deadline from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

The three main launch vehicles upon which Amazon is relying are all facing delays. On Thursday, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that the debut of the Ariane 6 rocket wouldn’t come until sometime between mid-June and end of July 2024.

When it does launch, officials said they only anticipate launching one more time that year.

Amazon contracted launches with Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA to launch its fleet of satellites. Image: Amazon

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket remains in development as well. During a Nov. 20 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations committee, the director of NASA’s Launch Services Office stated that the Mars-bound Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission would likely be the first mission for New Glenn.

A June press release from the company Advanced Space stated that the mission was set to launch in late 2024.

ULA’s Vulcan rocket is the furthest along of the three with its maiden flight set for no earlier than December 24. It’s next couple of launches are already booked between its second certification flight with Sierra Space as the customer and then its first national security mission following up.

That means it could be mid- to late-2024 before Vulcan would be available to start flying Kuiper missions. And that just leaves the eight Atlas 5 flights for Amazon and ULA would need to toggle between Atlas and Vulcan flights to fit in Kuiper missions.

One of the early 2024 priorities for ULA will be launching first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That mission is set to launch in mid-April.

Battling legal woes

For SpaceX, launching competitors to its Starlink internet satellite constellation is nothing new. It launched dozens of satellites for OneWeb’s constellation between the end of 2022 and spring 2023.

SpaceX also signed a contract with German company Rivanda Space Networks to launch 300 of its satellites between 2025 and 2026.

A lawsuit brought against Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the board of Amazon and Amazon itself claims that the board took “less than 40 minutes” during a March 3, 2022, meeting to make the selection of Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA as the launch providers for the Project Kuiper constellation.

The complaint claims that “By excluding SpaceX, Bezos and his management team minimized bid competition for the launch agreements and likely committed Amazon to spending hundreds of millions of dollars more than it would have otherwise had to.”

Amazon disputed the claims made in the lawsuit. According to Reuters reporter Joey Roulette, the move to purchase launches from SpaceX comes days before a Monday deadline to defend itself in court against the shareholder lawsuit.

Amazon has committed to spending $10 billion on the Project Kuiper constellation and is in the process of building a $120 million satellite processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will prepare satellites for flight and encapsulate them in New Glenn and Vulcan payload fairings. Spaceflight Now asked Amazon if the facility would also be used for the SpaceX flights, but the company declined to answer.