ULA's Vulcan Centaur to launch in early '23, with lunar lander and first Amazon broadband sats

Two down, 3,234 to go for Amazon's Kuiper service as it chases Starlink

Private rocketry outfit United Launch Alliance (ULA) will send its Vulcan Centaur craft into orbit for the first time in the first quarter of 2023 (hopefully), carrying two important payloads.

One will be a pair of satellites belonging to Amazon's planned Project Kuiper broadband-beaming constellation. Amazon plans to build and launch 3,236 satellites at a cost of over $10 billion, and has contracted ULA, Arianespace, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's rocket company Blue Origin to do the job. No single carrier can do all the work in time to meet deadlines set by the United States Federal Communications Commission, which requires half to be in orbit by mid-2026 and the remainder by July 30, 2029. Amazon hopes to compete with SpaceX's Starlink, which already has more than 2,000 satellites in orbit.

The second payload is Peregrine – a lunar lander built by private space biz Astrobotic Technology that will in turn carry several autonomous mini-bots to rove across Luna. NASA has funded the mission by buying space on the lander and helping to develop its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The mission is Astrobotic's to manage, but NASA will take a very keen interest given it has paid for its place.

As with many things space-related, the launch is running late. Amazon previously penciled Q4 2022 into its corporate diary as the date for its first launch, but ULA has missed that deadline and on Wednesday announced it is on track for a test launch in Q1 2023.

Amazon's own announcement followed, offering "early 2023" as the timeframe for its first launches. "Our first two satellites – Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 – will be completed later this year," the Amazon announcement states. Maybe it would happen faster if they were members of Prime.

ULA has launched over 150 successful missions using its Atlas and Delta rockets, so while nothing is assured in the space caper its track record suggests Vulcan Centaur – which offers four configurations capable of lifting between 2,600kg and 12,100kg – has every chance of lifting off without incident.

That Amazon and Astrobotic are aboard the first Vulcan Centaur launch suggests both are confident of success.

Space, however, infamously throws up unexpected challenges. Exhibit A could well be NASA's rescheduled first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in the dairy for Monday November 14 after fuel leaks and other frustrations led to scrubbing an August 29 launch. ®

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