Amazon buys nine ULA rocket launches for its space internet satellites

Technology

Amazon bought nine launches from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance to send its internet-beaming Kuiper satellites into space, the companies announced. It is Amazon’s first launch agreement.

The deal is for ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. An Amazon spokesman declined to say how many satellites each launch will carry or how often they will launch.

Amazon is planning to build a so-called constellation of 3,236 satellites in space to bring internet to rural parts of the world that have little to no connectivity. It’ll also serve as a major infrastructure boost to its mammoth cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services. But details on the network have been scant since the Federal Communications Commission approved the company’s network for launch in July 2020. The competition is stiff, too: both OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are also deploying broadband internet networks in low-Earth orbit.

The FCC requires Amazon to launch at least half of its Kuiper network — roughly 1,618 satellites — by July 2026. The Atlas 5 missions will help Amazon meet that goal, but the company could use other rockets as well. SpaceX, far ahead of Amazon with its own internet constellation, has been using its Falcon 9 rocket to ferry 1,355 of 12,000 satellites for its Starlink network so far. OneWeb has launched 146 of its roughly 650 satellites planned for its network. And another company, Telesat, plans to launch 300 satellites.

Amazon’s Kuiper satellites are designed to fit atop different types of rockets, but the ULA deal provides Amazon with a “capable, reliable rocket” for its first Kuiper launches, Amazon’s VP of technology for Project Kuiper, Rajeev Badyal, said in a statement.

Kuiper satellites will orbit Earth at an altitude range of 590 to 630 kilometers (or 366 to 391 miles). Amazon says Kuiper prototypes have proved speeds of up to 400Mbps, “and performance will continue to improve in future iterations.” Last year, the company unveiled designs for the antennas customers will use to tap into Kuiper internet. Those antennas can also connect to other satellites in geostationary orbits, or deeper orbits at least 22,000 miles away.

Amazon pledged to invest $10 billion into the program last year — roughly the same investment SpaceX has said it’s making for Starlink. In its statement on Monday, the company said it has over 500 people working on Kuiper and that its “team is heavily focused on inventing new technology to make broadband more affordable and more accessible for customers.”

Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, is in the late stages of developing a heavy-lift rocket dubbed New Glenn. Though Amazon could still pick New Glenn in the future, the rocket isn’t ready yet. Instead, Amazon is working with ULA, a company with ties to Blue Origin: its upcoming Vulcan rocket is powered by the same Blue Origin-made engines in New Glenn.

The deal is a win for ULA, an industry heavyweight that has fallen behind SpaceX for commercial launches. While SpaceX has launched at least two commercial missions this year, ULA hasn’t launched anything. SpaceX’s reusable rockets are cheaper than ULA’s — even though ULA has slashed its Atlas 5 prices to as low as $100 million from as much as $187 million. But SpaceX is, of course, Amazon’s satellite competition, which may have made a SpaceX rocket less palatable.

Low-Earth orbit, a shallow orbital layer where all these companies’ internet satellites will operate, is already getting crowded as SpaceX speeds ahead with Starlink deployment. The Verge reported this month that OneWeb recently made SpaceX disable its automated collision avoidance system when two of their satellites were projected to collide.

Industry competitors, including Amazon, have criticized SpaceX’s collision avoidance system for not sharing with other operators how it will move a Starlink satellite in the event of a potential collision. Analysts say rules requiring cooperation in orbit are a must, especially as Amazon aims to launch thousands of satellites in the same orbital neighborhood as SpaceX.