Amazon to launch first Project Kuiper internet satellites
Bezos rocket biz not involved this time – now that's a blue origin
It's been a long time coming, but Amazon is finally launching its first two Project Kuiper internet-relay satellites into orbit tomorrow, October 6, but don't expect Bezos' Starlink competitor to be ready for customers anytime soon.
Kuiper's Protoflight United Launch Alliance mission is expected to lift off in a little under 24 hours, carrying KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 to orbit. The test satellite duo will trail Kuiper's planned 3,200+ satellite constellation, and will be deorbited once Amazon finishes its experiments with the pair.
"This is Amazon's first time putting satellites into space, and we're going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds," said Rajeev Badyal, VP of technology for Project Kuiper.
"We've done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there's no substitute for on-orbit testing."
There's no substitute for on-orbit testing
Protoflight's pair of broadband-relaying satellites will be used to test all three of Kuiper's elements - satellite comms, customer terminals, and a ground-based communications network. Once the test hardware is deployed, Amazon will establish contact with the satellites, get their solar panels unfurled and see that everything is working. At that point, it's a matter of testing the network connectivity.
It's not clear how long the satellite test is planned, though Amazon said the pair will be safely incinerated in Earth's atmosphere at the conclusion of the program as "part of our commitment to space safety," the cloud/souk biz said.
What took you so long?
Since proclaiming Kuiper in 2019, Amazon has faced numerous delays that have made its 2029 deadline from the Federal Communications Commission to get its entire constellation orbited seem increasingly out of reach.
Amazon is even facing down a lawsuit alleging it didn't do its due diligence in selecting launch partners - namely Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' own Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance (ULA) - by not including SpaceX.
As we've noted previously, it'll likely be a hot day in space before Bezos lets Musk lift his satellites to orbit.
- Amazon sets up shop at Kennedy Space Center to prep Kuiper broadband satellites
- Vodafone and Amazon shoot for the stars while Kuiper satellites remain grounded
- Musk's mighty missile is ready for launch once FAA says OK
- Amazon: Behold our antennas, which you cannot use just yet
Kuiper's provider delays have mainly been caused by problems with ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket, the planned replacement for the firm's venerable Atlas V that's been used by NASA and ULA since 2002.
ULA announced plans to retire the rocket in 2021 in order to stop relying on Russian-manufactured engines, but Blue Origin's own BE-4 rocket, intended for use in Vulcan Centaur has been delayed due to an explosive mishap. As of earlier this year, the BE-4, and Vulcan, weren't expected to be ready this year despite initial plans to launch it in early 2023.
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That said, it will be one of the final Atlas V launches (all Atlas flights are booked and fewer than 20 remain) to take the pair of test satellites to orbit. In other words, ULA had better hurry up and finish Vulcan.
Amazon said that it plans to begin launching actual production Kuiper satellites in the first half of 2024, with beta testing for early commercial customers to begin by the end of next year, giving it even less time to get those satellites orbited. When asked for specific launch schedule plans beyond the fact that it's booked 77 flights, Amazon directed us to a 2021 blog post that said it planned to get its first two satellites to orbit last year.
Amazon's deal with the FCC requires it to get half of its satellites to orbit by 2026. Given Amazon doesn't expect to start launching actual Kuiper satellites until early next year, that leaves just two years for it to get 1,600 satellites in orbit - a very ambitious goal indeed.
Nonetheless, "we're on track to meet deadlines set forth in our FCC license," Amazon tells us. Given how quickly Kuiper has launched its orbiters so far you'll excuse us if we don't hold our breath. ®