A bitter pill: Amazon calls on rival SpaceX to launch Internet satellites

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a reused booster stage and payload fairing is seen rolling out to its launch pad in Florida before a mission last month.
SpaceX

Amazon announced Friday that it has purchased three Falcon 9 rocket launches from SpaceX beginning in mid-2025 to help deploy the retail giant’s network of Kuiper Internet satellites.

In a statement, Amazon said the SpaceX launches will provide “additional capacity” to “supplement existing launch contracts to support Project Kuiper’s satellite deployment schedule.” SpaceX has its own broadband satellite fleet, with more than 5,100 Starlink spacecraft currently in orbit, making it a competitor with Amazon.

Last year, Amazon bought up most of the Western world’s excess launch capacity from everyone but SpaceX, securing 68 rocket flights from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and Blue Origin to deploy thousands of satellites for the Kuiper broadband network. Amazon previously contracted with ULA for nine Atlas V launches to support the initial series of Kuiper launches, the first of which lifted off in October with Amazon’s first two Kuiper prototype satellites. More Atlas Vs will start launching operational Kuiper satellites next year.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the world’s most reliable launch vehicle in active service, was left out of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar rocket purchase. This led to a lawsuit filed in August by shareholders of a pension fund that includes Amazon stock. The suit claims Amazon, its founder Jeff Bezos, and its board of directors breached “their fiduciary duty” and failed to consider SpaceX during the launch service procurement.

The Falcon 9 rocket is the only rocket with any openings in its launch schedule that could make up a shortfall from delays caused by Amazon’s other launch providers. SpaceX has launched 88 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets so far this year and aims to increase the launch cadence to one flight every 2.5 days in 2024. Most of these launches are for SpaceX’s own Starlink Internet network.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that Amazon didn’t consider the Falcon 9 rocket last year due to an intense and personal rivalry between Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, and Bezos. That rivalry, it appears, has been eclipsed by the cold reality that Amazon needs some help from SpaceX.

A deadline looms

In its first-generation architecture, Amazon’s Kuiper network will consist of 3,236 satellites flying in low-Earth orbit at an altitude of less than 400 miles, providing broadband service to customers across most of the populated world.

The company needs to deploy half of these satellites by July 2026, a deadline to maintain network authorization from the Federal Communications Commission. That would require an average pace of at least two launches per month from Amazon’s stable of launch service providers beginning next year. Each launch will add several dozen operational Kuiper satellites on a single mission. Exact numbers will depend on the rocket’s lift capacity.

Aside from the Atlas V, which Amazon will lean on to launch its first batches of satellites, none of the rockets needed to deploy the Kuiper network have flown. Production of Atlas V rockets is winding down, and there are no more of those for Amazon to buy.

The Vulcan rocket, contracted for 38 Kuiper launches, is scheduled to launch on its first test flight on December 24 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket, which Amazon plans to use 18 times, is scheduled for its inaugural launch in mid-2024. The New Glenn from Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, might be ready to debut toward the end of 2024. Amazon has booked 12 New Glenn missions, with a contract option for 15 more.

Assuming all these rockets fly successfully on their current schedules, ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin will need to rapidly ramp up their launch rates to meet Amazon’s demand. The most pressure will be on ULA with its Vulcan rocket.

None of the three rockets Amazon selected to launch the bulk of its Kuiper constellation have flown.
Enlarge / None of the three rockets Amazon selected to launch the bulk of its Kuiper constellation have flown.
Amazon

Amazon is helping to fund a big expansion in ULA’s footprint at its Florida launch base, an effort that will double the ULA’s launch capacity. The investment to fund the growth in ULA’s capability to support Kuiper launches totals about $2 billion, with around $500 million going toward upgrades at Cape Canaveral.

Those upgrades include the outfitting of a second vertical hangar and a second mobile launch platform for Vulcan rockets, alongside the integration facility and launch table already built to support the first few Vulcan missions. Having dual lanes for launch processing in Florida will allow ULA to fly as many as 25 Vulcan rockets per year, the company says.

ULA and its subcontractors are also expanding factory space at locations around the country to produce more Vulcan engines, solid rocket boosters, and payload fairings for the Kuiper missions.

Amazon and ULA officials hope these investments will spare the Vulcan rocket from the growing pains experienced by other launch vehicles as they enter service. For example, it took 31 months for the Atlas V rocket to reach its fifth flight in the early 2000s. A decade ago, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 made its fifth flight 33 months after its inaugural launch.

That won’t do if Amazon is going to deploy more than 1,600 Kuiper satellites by mid-2026. Amazon, which is building the Kuiper satellites in Kirkland, Washington, intentionally designed the spacecraft to fit on a range of launch vehicles. In July, an Amazon official told Ars that the company had a big appetite for launch and didn’t rule out signing contracts with other launch providers. At the time, the official said SpaceX’s Falcon 9 could not lift as many Kuiper satellites on a single flight as ULA’s Vulcan.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper is one of several satellite “megaconstellations” at various stages of development to provide low-latency broadband connectivity to consumers, governments, and corporate customers around the world. SpaceX’s Starlink is the biggest of the group, and one of two (along with OneWeb) low-Earth orbit constellations currently providing commercial Internet service.

But once again, SpaceX has proved it will happily take money from its competitors to launch their satellites. OneWeb turned to SpaceX to launch its broadband satellites after losing access to Russian rockets in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Other communications satellite operators that compete with Starlink, including Viasat and SES, have launched their spacecraft on SpaceX rockets.

Northrop Grumman tapped SpaceX to launch three of its Cygnus supply freighters to the International Space Station as it redesigns its own rocket, the Antares, to replace Russian engines with US-made engines. Northrop Grumman and SpaceX use separate systems to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

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