Amazon launch contracts drive changes to launch vehicle production

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COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance is planning major production improvements for its Vulcan rocket while Arianespace will increase the performance of its Ariane 6 to meet the demands of their new Amazon contracts for Project Kuiper.

At a briefing during the 37th Space Symposium April 5 about Amazon’s contracts for up to 83 launches to place the bulk of its 3,236-satellite constellation into orbit, executives of launch providers said the size of the deal prompted changes in their vehicles and production facilities.

For ULA, that means major investments by itself and its suppliers to support a much higher rate of Vulcan launches, which he later estimated to be 20 to 25 per year. “We are essentially going to be doubling America’s launch industrial base,” said Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA. “These additional launches will take us to about twice our flight rate, which means about twice our infrastructure.”

That includes building a new mobile launch platform and a second vertical integration facility where rockets are assembled before being transported to the launch pad. ULA will buy a second ship to transport Vulcan stages from its Alabama factory to the launch site.

Suppliers will also be increasing production. Aerojet Rocketdyne will expand a factory to increase production of the RL10 engines used on Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage and Northrop Grumman will ramp up manufacturing of solid-fuel strap-on boosters. “This is a big impact for our country, and for our Western alliances, to be able to keep up with this truly amazing constellation,” Bruno said.

That work has already started with new factory tooling, he said. The Spaceflight Processing Operations Center at Cape Canaveral, which ULA upgraded to assemble a new Vulcan launch platform, will serve as the basis for the second vertical integration facility. ULA started coordinating with major suppliers a year ago about the need to increase production for Kuiper launches.

That investment will pay off in launching the largest share of the Kuiper constellation. Bruno said that each Vulcan will carry 45 satellites, meaning that the 38-launch contact will place 1,710 Kuiper satellites into orbit, a little more than half of the overall constellation.

Arianespace does not expect to need to make improvements in Ariane 6 production or launch operations. Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, said the 18 launches can be accommodated within a production rate of 11 to 12 vehicles per year currently planned. The Ariane 6 launch pad in French Guiana can support up to 20 launches per year.

However, the company will upgrade the solid-fuel strap-on boosters for the Ariane 64, the version of the Ariane 6 that will launch Kuiper satellites. Sixteen of the launches will use boosters with a new, longer motor called the P120C+. That will increase the payload performance to low Earth orbit of the Ariane 64 by about two tons. Israël estimated each launch will carry 35 to 40 Kuiper satellites.

“We are also considering with the European Space Agency other upgrades,” he said, which he did not specify and will depend on funding ESA can secure at its next ministerial meeting later this year. He said Arianespace will consider an increase in production of the vehicle to meet overall commercial and government demand.

Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, did not discuss any changes to his company’s New Glenn needed to accommodate Amazon. That vehicle will have the largest capacity of the three selected by Amazon, carrying 61 Kuiper satellites.

“We’re in build mode,” he said of work on New Glenn. That includes testing of the BE-4 engine that powers both New Glenn and Vulcan, which he said is undergoing its final development tests, such as a Vulcan mission duty cycle test April 1. He declined to give a date for the projected first launch of New Glenn other than “soon.”

Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices and Services, said Amazon chose three launch providers to ensure diversity, and these three in particular because of the larger but unspecified size of Kuiper satellites compared to other broadband constellations. “We do need new, larger launch vehicles that make it economic,” he said. “Many of them are coming online right now.”

“This is billions of dollars’ worth of contracts,” he added. “The outcome of that is that we’re going to create a lot of great jobs. Being able to do that on a global basis, not only here in the United States but also in Europe, was a high priority for us.”