ULA Atlas V rollout (Source: ULA Launch)

Amazon announces ULA launch contract for Project Kuiper

Amazon and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that Amazon will use the ULA Atlas V for nine launches to put Project Kuiper broadband satellites into orbit.  Project Kuiper plans to put a constellation of 3,236 satellites into low earth orbit to increase global broadband access.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”

The Atlas V missions will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Atlas V has long been the “go to” rocket for national security and NASA, putting into orbit GPS satellites, military communications and early warning spacecraft, and sending numerous missions to Mars, with a track record of more than 140 successful launches.

Amazon is putting “more than” $10 billion into Project Kuiper to make high-speed low-latency broadband more affordable and accessible for unserved and underserved communities around the globe.  The initiative plans to serve individual households as well as schools, hospitals, businesses, government agencies and other organizations operating in places without sufficient broadband access.

Total amount of the launch contract agreement was not announced.  A list price single Atlas 5 launch starts at around $109 million, but terms may vary upward depending on the amount of integration necessary and reduced for a commitment to multiple flights.  There was also no word from either party as to how many Project Kuiper satellites will be carried to orbit onboard the Atlas V.

Amazon has previously said the company plans to use multiple launch providers to put its satellites into orbit, but the commitment to Atlas V is interesting on two fronts.  ULA’s Vulcan rocket is expected to be the commercial workhorse for ULA moving forward as it phases out the Atlas V due to the rocket’s dependence upon Russian RD-180 engines while there has been speculation that Amazon would favor Blue Origin’s new rocket.

Vulcan sources its BE-4 engines from Blue Origin while there was expectation that the Blue Origin New Glenn rocket would be an initial and primary supplier of launch services for Amazon, given that Blue Origin is privately held by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  Selecting the proven Atlas V would indicate that Amazon is closer to launch satellites than the first launch dates for either the new Vulcan or New Glenn.  Vulcan’s first flight is expected to take place later this year while the New Glenn is not expected to make its first flight until late 2022.

While the selection of Atlas V may or may not indicate some issues delivering BE-4 engines, it is just as likely that Amazon feels it can put up more hardware faster and with less schedule risk with the established Atlas V.   Putting over 3,200 satellites into orbit will require multiple launch providers, regardless of which companies are involved.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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