As part of the ramp-up towards the launching of its Kuiper mega-constellation, Amazon placed what is believed to be the largest ever set of commercial multi-launch contracts with three launch providers, Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA, on 5 April. Officially known as Project Kuiper, the constellation is set to consist of 3,236 spacecraft to provide global broadband connectivity.
The contracts together entail 68 launches, with options for 15 further missions, and are expected to take place “over a five-year period”. The start date has not been disclosed by Amazon. However, it is known that the company has a deadline of 30 July 2026 for the launch of at least 50 per cent of its satellites and 30 July 2029 to complete it, due to ITU regulations.
The announcement does not include any information on the value of the contracts. However, Amazon is reported to have said that the payments form part of the previously stated US$10 billion total project cost.
The three companies selected to provide the vehicles to launch “the majority of” the 3,236 satellite constellation are American players ULA (United Launch Alliance) and Blue Origin, joined by European mainstay Arianespace.
- According to the Amazon announcement, Arianespace has been contracted for 18 launches of its upcoming Ariane 6 vehicle. The maiden launch of Ariane 6 is planned for late this year after suffering development delays. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël hailed the contract as “the largest we’ve ever signed…a great moment in Arianespace’s history”. Arianespace has confirmed that the Ariane 64 will be used with a new P120C+ solid rocket booster type to increase the LEO payload.
- Blue Origin, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is expected to provide at least 12 launches utilising its yet-to-launch New Glenn reusable rocket. In March, however, it confirmed that it was no longer expecting a first launch “at the end of 2022”, pushing the schedule into 2023. The initial 12 launches are firm contracts, but Blue Origin has also received options for a further 15 missions in service of Kuiper using New Glenn.
- Stalwart industry participant ULA is the main beneficiary of Amazon’s business having been contracted for 38 launches of its in-development Vulcan Centaur vehicle. The Vulcan is set to employ the same BE-4 engines that Blue Origin has been working on for the New Glenn rocket. This programme has met with significant delays. Nevertheless, the companies are confident that the Vulcan will receive its engines and conduct a flight in late 2022. RL-10 upper-stage engine production is being increased.
These are not the only missions that ULA has on the cards for Amazon. In April 2021, it signed a contract with the company to provide nine launches using the soon-to-be-replaced Atlas V rocket. This takes ULA’s total up to 47 missions in service of the Kuiper constellation.
Also mentioned in the announcement is the participation of Beyond Gravity (better known as RUAG Space and now undergoing a brand change), which is designing a launch vehicle dispenser/deployment system for the Kuiper satellites.