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Amazon makes a huge deal for satellite launches

Amazon has secured as many as 83 launches on three types of heavy-lift rockets to put more than 1,500 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation over the course of five years.

If Amazon follows through on all the reservations announced today, the campaign would carry a multibillion-dollar price tag and arguably represent the space industry’s largest launch procurement for a single commercial project.

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said today in a news release. “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.”

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to offer satellite broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved. The $10 billion project has been in the works for three years, and won the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead in 2020. But it’s considered far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, which is already available on a limited basis.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are currently working on Kuiper, and the project’s careers website lists more than 300 open positions.

Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices & Services, said Project Kuiper is making good progress. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” he said. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”

Twelve launch reservations have been made with Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Those launches would use Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is closing in on a first launch in 2023 or later. Amazon also has an option to buy up to 15 additional New Glenn launches.

Amazon has reserved another 38 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is due to have its first liftoff as early as this year. Those missions would be in addition to nine previously reserved launches on ULA’s existing Atlas V rockets.

New Glenn and Vulcan are designed to lift off from separate launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Arianespace has agreed to set aside 18 launches of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which is due to make its debut as early as this year at the European consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the launch contract with Amazon is “the largest we’ve ever signed.”

The FCC license requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026, and today Amazon said its procurement plan should meet that schedule. That translates to more than 1,618 satellites, potentially launched by the nine Atlas V rockets and the rockets mentioned today.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin tests a giant nose cone for its orbital rocket

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is still months away from the first launch of its orbital-class New Glenn rocket, but tests that were recently conducted at NASA’s Glenn Research Center are boosting confidence that the rocket’s cavernous nose cone, or fairing, will work as intended.

In a video released today via Twitter and Instagram, Blue Origin touted the first jettison test of the 7-meter-wide (23-foot-wide) fairing at Glenn Research Center’s Armstrong Test Facility Space Environments Complex in Ohio. The test was designed to ensure that the fairing would split apart cleanly to allow for payload deployment.

The complex houses the world’s largest vacuum chamber, measuring 100 feet in diameter and 122 feet in height. “It’s the only place in the world that we can test out this fairing in an environment similar to what the rocket will be seeing in space,” said Shawna Sherwood Ryan, a project manager and test conductor at Blue Origin.

Blue Origin said the test “validated acoustics, cleanliness and environments that payload customers are expecting.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin practices with simulated orbital rocket

It’ll be at least another year before Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket gets its first launch, but Jeff Bezos’ space venture has brought out a dummy version of New Glenn’s first stage to practice for that eventual countdown.

The 188-foot-long, 23-foot-wide simulator emerged from Blue Origin’s rocket factory in Florida last week.

In a series of tweets, the company said the GS1 simulator would “enable the team to practice ground ops for New Glenn’s massive first stage, including the transport from the rocket manufacturing complex to LC-36 for integration.”

“While not destined for flight, this hardware is giving our team invaluable data to inform future launch vehicle operations,” Blue Origin said.

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GeekWire

Space Force awards $87.5 million for rocket development

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command today announced awards totaling $87.5 million to support prototype commercial projects relating to next-generation rocket testing and enhancements to make upper stages more resilient.

The awards were made under the aegis of the National Security Space Launch program using the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium, which facilitates engagement involving the Pentagon space community, industry and academia.

The awards include:

  • $24.35 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for cryogenic fluid management on the New Glenn rocket’s second stage.
  • $24.35 million to Rocket Lab to develop the Neutron rocket’s upper stage.
  • $14.47 million to SpaceX for rapid throttling and restart testing of the Raptor rocket engine, which is destined for use on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, liquid methane specification development and testing; and combustion stability analysis and testing.
  • $24.35 million to United Launch Alliance for uplink command and control for the Centaur V upper stage, which will be used with ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin delays New Glenn rocket’s first flight

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it’s targeting the fourth quarter of 2022 for the first flight of its orbital-class New Glenn rocket — which marks a major schedule shift.

The company had previously planned to conduct its first New Glenn launch from Florida by the end of this year, although it was becoming increasingly clear that timeline wouldn’t hold.

In a blog posting, Blue Origin said its team “has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.”

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos names rocket recovery ship after his mom

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk named his rocket recovery vessels after science-fiction spaceships, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stayed closer to home for the christening of the ship that his Blue Origin space venture will use for at-sea rocket landings.

In an Instagram post, Bezos said he and his siblings surprised their mom, Jacklyn Bezos, by revealing that the 600-foot recovery ship would be named after her. A video included in the post shows Jacklyn Bezos smashing a bottle of bubbly against the hull, then waving to a cheering crowd.

The landing platform vessel has had several names during its more than two decades of existence. For most of that time, it was known as the Stena Freighter. But when Blue Origin purchased the ship in 2018 and had it brought to Florida for refurbishing, it was clear that it’d be only a matter of time before a new name was painted on its prow.

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GeekWire

NASA puts Blue Origin’s big rocket on its wish list

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture hasn’t yet finished its orbital-class New Glenn rocket, but today NASA put it on the “on-ramp” for future missions.

The NASA Launch Services II contract, or NLS II for short, essentially puts New Glenn on the list of options available for ordering through June 2025, with an overall period of performance through 2027. As described in a NASA news release, NLS II is a contracting vehicle that can cover multiple suppliers and multiple awards on the basis of indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity.

NLS II contractors must be able to use a domestic launch service to deliver payloads weighing a minimum of 551 pounds (250 kilograms) to a 124-mile (200-kilometer) orbit at an inclination of 28.5 degrees, which matches Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s coordinates. Such contractors include United Launch Alliance for the Atlas 5 rocket, SpaceX for the Falcon 9, and Northrop Grumman for the Antares.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin shows off its mission control room

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture hasn’t yet completed its first New Glenn rocket, but it has completed a glittering control room in Florida for New Glenn’s missions to orbit.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin drops fresh hints about ‘busy year’

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has lifted the curtain just a bit more on plans for its New Shepard suborbital spaceship and its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.