As clock ticks on Amazon’s constellation, buying Starship launches not out of the question

by
Amazon VP Dave Limp: The availability of heavy-lift rockets to deploy Project Kuiper satellites is “a constrained resource"

WASHINGTON — Amazon’s Project Kuiper needs half of its internet constellation – or about 1,600 satellites — to be operating in low Earth orbit by July 2026. 

Getting there will be a race against time, as most of the rockets that are under contract to launch these satellites are new vehicles that have not yet flown. 

The availability of heavy-lift rockets to deploy Kuiper satellites on time is “a constrained resource right now,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services said Oct. 27 at a Washington Post Live event. 

The July 2026 deadline was set by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2020 when it approved Amazon’s request to operate an estimated $10 billion constellation of roughly 3,200 internet satellites in low Earth orbit. 

Amazon in April announced it procured 83 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Arianespace’s Ariane 6, none of which has yet flown. Previously Amazon had ordered nine launches on ULA’s Atlas 5, a proven vehicle that is in limited supply as ULA plans to retire it and transition to Vulcan. 

Limp said the company remains confident it will meet the FCC deadline even if that requires buying launches from satellite internet archrival SpaceX.

On Vulcan, New Glenn and Ariane 6, the question is not “will they fly, it’s just when, it’s a timing question,” he said. By buying Atlas 5s, “we hedged our bets a bit.”

The new vehicles “hopefully come into place,” he said. “But there are also other providers out there,” Limp added. “We have a lot of satellites to put up into space. So we’re open to contracting with anyone,” including SpaceX.

Amazon Kuiper is positioning to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation but it would not rule out seeking launch services from its competitor given the tight deadline, Limp said. “We are open to talking to SpaceX. You’d be crazy not to, given their track record.”

The Falcon 9, however, is not as large as Amazon would like it to be in order to get maximum bang for its launch buck, as Kuiper satellites are larger than Starlink’s.

“I would say Falcon 9 is probably at the low end of the capacity that we need,” Limp said. Perhaps a better option would be Falcon Heavy or the much larger Starship, which is still in development. As Starship transitions to production readiness, “that becomes a very viable candidate for us as well.”

There are many “cool and amazing” rockets flying today, he said, “but the fact of the matter is that heavy launch capacity is still pretty constrained, and I think it will be for the coming years.”

Race to build satellites

In an effort to meet the 2026 target, Amazon is ramping up satellite production. The company on Thursday announced plans to open a 172,000-square-foot satellite production facility in Kirkland, Washington, to build as many as four satellites per day. That’s in addition to the 219,000-square-foot research and development facility it already operates in Redmond, Washington. 

“We have to build manufacturing capabilities that look more like consumer electronics or automobiles and less like the traditional space industry,” Limp said.

‘We’re over 1,000 people now we’re continuing to hire,” he said. 

The first two Kuiper prototype satellites are being produced in Redmond. “Those should be done by the end of the fourth quarter, and we’re in test right now,” he said. The plan is to deliver them to ULA in early 2023 so they can fly on Vulcan’s first launch

“Given the schedule we have in front of us,” Limp said, “assuming success of our prototype satellites, we’re in parallel bringing up manufacturing of our production satellites so we can meet that milestone.”

Limp pushed back on the idea that Amazon is too far behind SpaceX to become a viable competitor. 

“The headlines would have you think that this is a sports race and there’s going to be one winner,” he said. “But there are literally hundreds of millions of customers around the world that don’t have access to great broadband … And I think there’s plenty of room for two great constellations.”

He said Amazon did not greenlight billions of dollars in launch contracts until “we had a satellite on a bench that seemed to be working and we had an antenna that seemed to be working.”

Amazon intends to compete with Starlink by offering affordable terminals, Limp said. Kuiper terminals cost under $400 to produce, Limp said, but did specify what they will sell for. 

“The actual dish that will connect to the satellite network has a much lower cost than anybody has seen before, including Starlink. So I think we’ll have some advantages, because in the end, I think there’ll be plenty of room for two constellations.”

The Kuiper constellation was designed to operate in the Ka band, which resulted in larger and more expensive satellites, said Limp, “but we have more power on our bus, and the advantage for us was to be able to build a much lower cost antenna.”

Commercial satellites and national security

Limp said Amazon is pursuing U.S. government contracts, including the military

“We’ve had discussions with a bunch of different parts of the U.S. government,” he said. The company earlier this year secured a NASA contract for mesh networking in space. 

In response to a  question on the role of commercial satellites during war, Limp said, “At Amazon, in general, it’s one of our tenets that technology should be used to help national security and so to the extent that Kuiper can help, I think we’re open to those discussions.”

It’s too early to speculate on specific roles Projet Kuiper would play in support of of national security, Limp added. “But I would say from a macro level that access to broadband is part and parcel to access to information, and when you get information that is not censored, that is the path of freedom.”

Right now, “we’re too early to be thinking about that. We’ve got to get this system up and working first. But I do believe the moral high ground of having access to ground truth information is an important one for society.”