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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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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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Amazon makes its first satellite launch deal

United Launch Alliance says it’s struck a deal for a series of nine launches of its Atlas V rocket to send satellites into low Earth orbit for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

Amazon emphasized that this is just the first wave for a 3,236-satellite network that’s designed to offer broadband access to billions of people.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said today in a news release. “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.”

Neither ULA nor Amazon announced a schedule for the launches, but under the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission, half of the satellites have to be deployed by mid-2026.

Bezos is also the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, which is working on an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn. That rocket isn’t expected to go into service until late 2022.

In contrast, the Atlas V has successfully executed more than 80 launches since 2002. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, touted the Atlas V’s reputation as a “capable, reliable rocket.”

Badyal didn’t rule out selecting Blue Origin for a later round of launches. “We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” he said.

Because Bezos is the sole owner of privately held Blue Origin, publicly held Amazon has to navigate a careful path as it selects launch providers for Project Kuiper. Decisions that appear to favor Blue Origin could spark questions about self-dealing.

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Jeff Bezos kicks back with a fiery rocket engine test

If you’re hanging out in West Texas during a pandemic, there are few fireworks shows more thrilling than a test firing of your very own rocket engine. At least that’s the way Blue Origin’s billionaire founder sees it.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.

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SpaceX sticks with lawsuit over launch competition

Update: A federal district judge in California ruled against SpaceX and ordered its case against the Air Force to be vacated. The order was issued under seal on Sept. 24, but an Oct. 2 filing indicated that the court decided in the Air Force’s favor on all of SpaceX’s claims.

Previously: In August, SpaceX said it would keep pursuing its lawsuit against the federal government as well as its rivals in the launch industry, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, even though it’s been cleared for billions of dollars in contracts for national security space missions.

Both sides in the long-running dispute laid out their positions in a notice filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, a week after the U.S. Space Force announced that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were the winners in a competition for future launches.

Leading up to that decision, the Air Force provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development funding for ULA as well as Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman). SpaceX was left out but protested the awards.

In the August filing, SpaceX said the funding gave ULA an “unwarranted advantage” and called for the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to “rectify” its errors, presumably by providing more funding for SpaceX.

Lawyers for the federal government and ULA said the competition for development funding was decided fairly. They said no rectification was warranted, especially considering that SpaceX proposed its Starship super-rocket for development funding but ended up offering a different launch vehicle  — a modified Falcon Heavy rocket — for the Space Force’s future heavy-lift launches.

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ULA and SpaceX win shares of Space Force launches

The U.S. Space Force designated United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as the winners of a multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches over a five-year period, passing up a proposal from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in the process.

Northrop Grumman and its OmegA rocket also lost out in the Phase II competition for the National Security Space Launch program.

ULA will receive a 60% share of the launch manifest for contracts awarded in the 2020-2024 time frame, with the first missions launching in fiscal 2022, said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

SpaceX will receive the other 40%.

The competition extended through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, whose Space and Missile Systems Center will be in charge of executing the launches in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The five-year Phase II program provides for fixed-price but indefinite-delivery contracts, which means there isn’t a specified total payout. But Roper said it’d be reasonable to estimate that somewhere around 32 to 34 launches would be covered, which would translate to billions of dollars in business.

Three launches were assigned today: ULA is scheduled to launch two missions known as USSF-51 and USSF-106 for the Space Force in 2022, while SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67 in mid-2022.

ULA’s two contracts amount to $337 million, and SpaceX’s contract is worth $316 million. Roper said details about the payloads are classified.

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X-37 space plane begins shadowy orbital mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a Boeing-built X-37B space plane today on a semi-secret orbital mission under the management of the recently created Space Force.

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Space Force’s first official orbital mission begins

AEHF-6 launch
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket launches the AEHF-6 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (ULA via YouTube)

The first satellite mission conducted under the name of the U.S. Space Force got underway today with the launch of the AEHF-6 military communications satellite atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

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Starliner space taxi falls short on first flight

Starliner launch
Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Boeing’s Starliner space taxi blasted off for the first time today on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station, but ran into a problem that precluded a space station rendezvous.

The anomaly is sure to complicate preparations for the crewed Starliner mission that’s supposed to follow up on the uncrewed test flight. But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the crewed mission could go ahead as planned without first having to do another uncrewed test.

“I think it’s too early for us to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said at a post-launch news conference.

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Vulcan rocket chosen for 2021 moon launch

Vulcan rocket illustration
An artist’s conception shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket lifting off. (ULA Illustration)

United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket – and Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine – have been chosen to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander as well as Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to the final frontier in 2021.

Neither of the past week’s announcements is all that surprising, because Astrobotic and SNC both had previous agreements to use ULA’s current-generation Atlas 5 rocket. But both announcements underscore the importance of holding to the current schedule for rolling out the BE-4 as well as the Vulcan, which is designed to use two BE-4 engines on its first-stage booster.

Blue Origin, the privately held space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is thought to be in the final stages of testing the BE-4’s performance – not only for ULA’s Vulcan but also for its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is also due for its maiden flight in 2021.

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