An Amazon executive says that the company could still call on SpaceX to launch some of its Project Kuiper internet satellites after two of the three unproven rockets it purchased announced launch delays days apart.
Amazon began work on Project Kuiper in 2018. When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk fired several senior employees overseeing the company’s Starlink satellite internet program for being overly cautious, at least two of those employees immediately landed in senior positions at Project Kuiper. Four years later and more than two years after Amazon received an FCC license to deploy its 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation, which aims to compete directly with SpaceX’s Starlink, the company’s first prototype satellite launch has changed rockets and slipped from late 2022 to early 2023.
Of the 77 firm launch contracts Amazon has signed since April 2021, only nine are for a rocket – United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V – that has already successfully flown. The remaining 68 (and another 15 exercisable options) are spread among ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, Arianespace’s Ariane 6, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, all of which are months away from their first launch attempts.
On October 10th, ULA CEO Tory Bruno told reporters that Vulcan Centaur’s launch debut had slipped from its latest late-2022 target to no earlier than (NET) “early 2023.” Garnering 38 of 77 firm contracts, Vulcan is the single most important rocket for Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans and is likely expected to launch close to half of all Kuiper satellites.
Nine days later, Ariane Group and the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that Ariane 6’s launch debut had also slipped from a late-2022 target. Unlike Vulcan’s gentle early-2023 slip, Ariane 6’s debut was pushed to late 2023 at the earliest, and ESA and Ariane officials frankly admitted that that could easily become 2024. Excluding options, Ariane 6 won 18 Project Kuiper launch contracts and is the constellation’s second most important rocket.
Because Amazon applied for its Project Kuiper license so early, a six-year countdown started when the FCC approved its license in July 2020. If Amazon fails to launch half of its 3,236 satellites within six years of that receipt, the FCC could revoke Kuiper’s constellation license. While it’s unlikely that the FCC would actually revoke the license of a constellation that’s close to achieving its deployment milestones, the deadline still emphasizes just how far Amazon and its suppliers are falling behind.
Vulcan, Ariane 6, and Project Kuiper prototype launch delays have only worsened an already challenging situation. In addition to the rocket’s long-awaited debut, ULA has major obligations to NASA and the US military, who expect Vulcan to complete up to four more launches in 2023. Unless ULA pulls off a minor miracle, it’s unlikely that Vulcan will be able to launch five times in its first year of service. Respectively, ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets took 2.5 and 3.5 years to reach that milestone. If ULA’s past record serves as a reasonable guide for its future, it’s possible that Vulcan Centaur won’t have the spare capacity to begin Project Kuiper launches until 2025.
The same is arguably true for Ariane 6, which has an even busier manifest – all of which may be delayed to 2024. Of Arianespace’s two most recent rockets, Ariane 4 took 14 months and Ariane 5 took 53 months to complete their first five fully successful launches. Ariane 6 borrows heavily from Ariane 5’s design. Unless Arianespace gets off to a record-breaking start or prioritizes Amazon over ESA and other European operators, an almost unthinkable scenario, it’s difficult to imagine that Ariane 6 will have the spare capacity to begin Project Kuiper launches before 2025 or 2026.
Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is years behind schedule and unlikely to debut before late 2023 or 2024, might ironically be Amazon’s best bet for the first dedicated Project Kuiper launch, but only if its debut is near-flawless and doesn’t slip any further. Given that New Glenn will be Blue Origin’s first orbital rocket of any kind, more delays and issues (if not an outright failure) on the first launch are likely. New Glenn is thus also unlikely to be ready to launch large batches of Project Kuiper satellites until 2024 or 2025. Given the record of its suborbital New Shepard rocket, the odds are also against Blue Origin quickly ramping up the cadence of a far more complex orbital launch vehicle.
Only Atlas V appears to have any significant chance of beginning large-scale Project Kuiper launches before 2025. But ULA is shutting down Atlas V production to transition to Vulcan, so it’s impossible for Amazon to order more than nine of the rockets, as ULA.
Unfortunately for Amazon, in addition to the many rocket-side issues facing Project Kuiper, its satellite prototype delays will make it even harder for the company to begin large-scale launches sooner than later. SpaceX, now the proud owner of a majority of all working satellites in orbit, took around 21 months to go from launching its first two prototypes to its first batch of 60 operational Starlink satellites. The satellite design it settled on was almost nothing like the first two prototypes.
If Amazon’s first prototypes launch on Vulcan’s early-2023 debut, perform excellently, meet or exceed expectations after just a few months of testing, and are close to the final satellite design, Project Kuiper may still have a shot at manufacturing enough satellites to fill one or more launches in 2024. But if its first satellites run into major issues, Amazon’s decision to “[bring] up manufacturing of…production satellites [in parallel with prototype development]” could set it back months if it’s forced to redesign its satellites, find new suppliers, or significantly change the factory it’s already building.
Combined, Project Kuiper finds itself in an unenviable position. It’s thus unsurprising that as of October 2022, an Amazon executive appears to have changed their tune about using SpaceX rockets. Over the last ~13 months, SpaceX has become the single most productive launch provider in the world, besting the entire nation of China. On a quarterly basis, SpaceX now launches more useful mass to orbit than the rest of the world combined. It’s also the only launch provider on Earth that can create spare capacity for last-minute customers by shuffling its own internal launch demands.
According to Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices and services at Amazon, Project Kuiper is willing to consider taking advantage of some of SpaceX’s unprecedented capabilities after it shunned the company entirely in earlier contracts and statements. Speaking in a Washington Post Live interview, Limp says that Amazon is “open to contracting with anyone” and understands “that heavy launch capacity is [and will likely remain] pretty constrained” for years to come.
Unfortunately, Limp began by falsely asserting that Falcon 9 was too small to have warranted earlier launch contracts, stating that it’s “probably at the low end of…the capacity that we need.” In an expendable configuration, Falcon 9 can launch more than 22 tons (~48,500 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO), while Ariane 6 is quoted at [PDF] 21.7 tons (~47,800 lb). While it hasn’t flown, SpaceX also offers an extended payload fairing that should more or less match Vulcan and Ariane 6’s largest fairings.
But Limp expressed interest in SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which could likely match or come close to the payload volume of Ariane 6 and Vulcan and far exceed either rocket’s performance to LEO. In a configuration that would allow SpaceX to recover all three of Falcon Heavy’s boosters, almost guaranteeing that it would cost less than Vulcan or Ariane 6, the rocket would likely be able to launch around 40-50 tons (90,000-110,000 lb) to LEO. The Amazon executive even brought up SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket as a more desirable option for future Project Kuiper launches. Starship is designed to launch anywhere from 100 to 150 tons to LEO, should cost even less than Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, and will eventually feature a payload bay that dwarfs even New Glenn’s massive fairing.
Nonetheless, despite the promise of SpaceX, Amazon appears to be in no rush to hedge its bets on Vulcan, Ariane 6, and New Glenn. Only time will tell if its multi-billion-dollar gamble pays off.