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Bezos risks all on unproven rockets

April 8, 2022

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos has contracted with three rocket launch companies to a 5- year launch timetable to place his 3236 ‘Project Kuiper’ satellites into orbit.

Kuiper has until July 30th 2026 to launch at least half of its constellation (1618 satellites) to retain its FCC orbital and frequency permissions.

The cargo being carried works out at a planned:
· Ariane 64, at a rate of 35-40 Kuiper satellites/launch
· Blue Origin, at a rate of 61 satellites/launch
· ULA will carry 45 Kuiper satellites /launch

This translates as:
· Ariane, 630-720 of the Kuiper fleet
· Blue Origin, 732-915 satellites
· ULA, 1710 satellites

The contracts with Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA (United Launch Alliance) have, in the words of researchers from Quilty Analytics, “flipped the launch industry from a sector struggling with declining geostationary satellite orders to one brimming with demand it can barely handle.”

The analysts pose the question that now somewhat overhangs Project Kuiper. While Bezos has wisely spread his risks over the choice of three launch contractors, “it remains that all three are developing new rockets and have yet to prove their reliability or a predictable launch cadence.” Nevertheless, the target is for two-four satellites per day.

Kuiper’s first problem is to ramp up its own ‘in house’ production rate. The company already owns the space for assembly, integration and testing of its satellites. But the Generation 1 versions are still in their development phase.

“Amazon has not disclosed a mass for Kuiper satellites – and the design awaits finalisation after prototype launches – but indications are they weigh 600-700 kilograms. Kuiper leadership indicated the satellites are notably larger than Starlink (260-300kg) and OneWeb (150kg) because of their higher power requirements,” says Quilty.

Then comes the launches: “The three new launch vehicles Amazon selected have all suffered through multiyear developmental delays, but now appear close to achieving their maiden launches. And while launch delays receive considerable attention, the bigger concern is how quickly those vehicles can achieve a regular launch cadence. Most new rockets struggle to do more than a few launches in their early years, which is, for Amazon, exactly when Kuiper will need them most,” says Quilty.

The analysts calculate that with a January 2024 the plan seems to call for about 40 launches and each carrying about 40 satellites. This extrapolates as a 30-month task, with Amazon’s Kuiper having guaranteed (and probably non-pre-emptiable) access to space.

Of course, that 30-month period will see Kuiper start its marketing, securing early adopters once the system is workable, and then a subsequent global expansion. Kuiper will have access to Amazon Web Services and tapping into existing users to other Amazon-based services whether for delivery services, Prime Video broadcasts, Fire TV etc the potential for contact with existing Amazon clients is extensive.

Then the normal battle for consumers will begin. The Kuiper dates more or less match those of Telesat’s Lightspeed system availability. Elon Musk, the arch-rival of Bezos, and his Starlink broadband constellation is already well established.

However, Kuiper is reportedly well ahead with the development of its claimed lower-cost consumer terminal. An Amazon executive, speaking at an event in Colorado Springs earlier this week, said the cost to produce antennas for its proposed Project Kuiper mega-constellation is already “well under $500,” even as SpaceX retreats from the subsidized $499 price it charges customers for its operational Starlink terminals.

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