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Bezos’s giant rocket orders unwrapped

April 6, 2022

The news on April 5th that Jeff Bezos had signed unprecedented orders for rocket capacity to get Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband system operational did not go far enough. The announcement also kick-starts a five-year timetable and designed to compete head-to-head with Elon Musk’s Starlink operation which is already in business.

Amazon had ordered up a series of rocket launches numbering 68 – drawn from Arianespace (18 launches), Bezos-owned Blue Origin (12) and the United Launch Alliance/ULA, (38). Kuiper also has orders outstanding with nine launches on Atlas-5 rockets.

Those details are are accurate, but did not take into account a number of order options which take the overall total to a potential 83 launches. The target for Project Kuiper is to get as many of the constellation’s 3,236 satellites into orbit ASAP. Kuiper has until July 30th 2026 to launch at least half of its constellation to retain its FCC permissions. The complete constellation must be in place by July 30th 2029.

The one caveat – perhaps worryingly – is that each of the launch companies have yet to successfully finish building and testing their rockets. Each is expected to test their rockets later this year or early 2023.

The cargo being carried works out at a planned:

  • Ariane 64, at a rate of 35-40 Kuiper satellites
  • Blue Origin, at a rate of 61 satellites/launch
  • ULA will carry 45 Kuiper satellites /launch

“Project Kuiper will provide fast, affordable broadband to tens of millions of customers in unserved and underserved communities around the world,” said Dave Limp, SVP/Amazon Devices & Services. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system. These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive line-up of partners to deliver on our mission.”

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” said Rajeev Badyal, VP/Technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This approach reduces risk associated with launch vehicle stand-downs and supports competitive long-term pricing for Amazon, producing cost savings that we can pass on to our customers. These large, heavy-lift rockets also mean we can deploy more of our constellation with fewer launches, helping simplify our launch and deployment schedule. We’re excited to move one step closer to connecting residential, business, and government customers around the world.”

Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, added: “This contract, the largest we’ve ever signed, is a great moment in Arianespace’s history. We are honoured to be given a significant role to play in the deployment of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which aims to connect tens of millions of people to the internet. It will build on the European innovative spirit, industrial might, and years of experience of the Ariane partners. That Amazon has chosen the Ariane 6 to do the job is a matter of tremendous pride for us and a great vote of confidence for our new launch vehicle. This day marks a decisive success for the Ariane 6 Program and all its value chain in Europe.”

Evidently, the discussions with Arianespace have been running for two-and-a-half years. Arianespace’s launches will take place between 2024-2027. The massive contract is a significant shot in the arm for Arianespace and rebuts criticism that the rocket launch company has not kept pace with market demand.

However, the order from Amazon will force Arianespace (and its backers) to decide whether the present launch cadence of about 11-12 rockets per year is adequate. Stéphane Israël is now on record as saying that extra launch capacity will be needed. Speaking April 5th, he said he could confirm that the space market is in the midst of a rapid expansion. “That’s the reality. We’ll have other contracts.”

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