PARIS — The three companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to launch Amazons’s Project Kuiper constellation say they are committed to deploying those satellites on schedule despite delays in the development of their vehicles.
Amazon announced contracts in April 2022 with Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance for up to 83 launches of the Ariane 6, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur rockets to deploy the 3,236-satellite constellation. The contracts combined represent the largest single commercial launch order to date.
Amazon made the commitments even though none of the vehicles had launched at the time of the contract signing. All three vehicles have suffered extensive development delays and still have yet to attempt a single launch. The contracting process recently triggered a lawsuit by a pension fund that is an Amazon shareholder against the company’s board of directors.
During a Sept. 11 panel at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here, executives of the three launch companies said they are getting closer to their vehicles’ first launches.
Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, noted that the company had planned the inaugural Vulcan Centaur launch for this spring but delayed it after an incident during a test of a Centaur upper stage where hydrogen fuel leaked from the stage and ignited. The company said in June it would modify the Centaur to increase the thickness of part of the stage to correct the problem, pushing that inaugural launch to some time in the fourth quarter.
The replacement Centaur that will be used on the first launch is in “final assembly,” he said, having passed a pressure test that qualifies the changes made to correct the problem seen in the earlier test. “We’ll be shipping the vehicle out to the pad in November and I expect to fly the Vulcan in December.”
Jarrett Jones, senior vice president for New Glenn at Blue Origin, said the company is still working towards a first launch of that rocket in 2024 but did not offer a more precise timeframe. The first flight vehicle will arrive at the integration facility by the end of the year, followed by integrated hot-fire tests.
Blue Origin is planning “multiple” launches of New Glenn in 2024, but he did not disclose details about the manifest. “We intend to meet our contractual requirements in ’24,” he said. One of those contracted launches would be for NASA’s ESCAPADE Mars smallsat mission, currently scheduled to launch in August 2024.
Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, reiterated comments made by officials at a Sept. 4 briefing where they said the European Space Agency would set a target launch period for Ariane 6 after a long-duration hot-fire test of the core stage planned for early October. That test will follow a successful short-duration test Sept. 5 and an upper-stage firing test Sept. 1.
That inaugural flight will come some time in 2024, but he declined to be more specific. “Things are progressing very well. We are very happy,” he said. Ariane 6, like both New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur, had once planned initial launches in 2020.
Ramping up for Kuiper
For all three companies, Amazon is their largest commercial customer and perhaps their most impatient one. Under terms of its Federal Communication Commission license, the company must deploy at least half of the constellation by July 2026, giving it less than three years to launch more than 1,800 satellites. The remaining satellites must be in orbit by July 2029.
All three executives said they are working to ramp up production and launch operations in order to meet Amazon’s deadline. “We will deliver for Kuiper as quick as possible after the maiden flight,” Israël said. Those launches will not begin with the second Ariane 6 flight, he said, but will start “quickly,” intermixed with launches for institutional customers like ESA.
Many of the Kuiper launches will use an upgraded version of the Ariane 6’s solid-fuel boosters that will increase its payload performance, allowing each launch to carry as many as 40 satellites. “We are on track for Kuiper.”
Blue Origin also does not plan to fly Kuiper satellites on the initial launches of New Glenn, Jones said. The company has four boosters in various stages of development, each designed to be reused up to 25 times. He said the company was also looking at other ways to double its launch capacity that he did not go into. “We’re not concerned about meeting the contractual requirements for Kuiper.”
Bruno said ULA was taking a three-part approach to building up its launch capacity. One step involves infrastructure improvements to increase production of vehicles, an investment he suggested ran into the billions of dollars.
A second step, he said, is that ULA will start launching Kuiper satellites on Atlas rockets using a contract it previously signed with ULA. Nine Atlas rockets are allocated to Kuiper, including one expected to launch in the next month carrying two prototype satellites that had been slated to fly on the first Vulcan launch.
A third step is stockpiling Vulcan hardware, like boosters, to allow launches to take place rapidly once the vehicle is in service. “When the Kuiper satellites come our way, we’ve already got whole rockets in inventory,” he said.
Other vehicles in development
Three other companies on the panel do not have Amazon launch contracts but are working to get new vehicles to orbit.
Iwao Igarashi, vice president and general manager of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said the investigation into the failed inaugural H3 launch in March was completed last month. On that flight, the rocket’s first stage appeared to perform as expected but the second stage failed to ignite.
“We defined the corrective actions and some of them were applied to the H-2A launch vehicle last week,” he said, a reference to a successful Sept. 6 launch of an H-2A carrying the XRISM X-ray astronomy satellite and SLIM lunar lander. The next H3 launch is planned before the end of the year.
Relativity Space retired its Terran 1 small launch vehicle after a single, unsuccessful flight in March so it could focus on its larger Terran R, now planned for 2026. The experience from Terran 1, said Josh Brost, senior vice president at Relativity, “gives us that confidence to pivot on to this much larger launch system.”
Tom Ochinero, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX, reiterated the comments made by the company and the Federal Aviation Administration Sept. 8 about the status of Starship, now that the FAA has closed its investigation into the failed first launch in April.
“From a vehicle readiness perspective, we’re almost there,” he said, as the company works with the FAA on an updated launch license. “We’re real close and we hope we can have a cool, successful test flight real soon.”