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Atlas V rocket completes on-target orbital delivery for Amazon

United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket climbs away from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, with Amazon's first two Kuiper satellites.
Enlarge / United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket climbs away from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, with Amazon’s first two Kuiper satellites.

The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s broadband network launched Friday from Florida, the first in a series of at least 77 rocket launches the retail giant has booked over the next six years to deploy a fleet of more than 3,200 spacecraft to rival SpaceX’s Starlink system.

These first two satellites for Amazon’s $10 billion Internet megaconstellation, called Project Kuiper, took off on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:06 pm EDT (18:06 UTC).

On its 99th flight, ULA’s Atlas V rocket fired a Russian-made RD-180 engine and thundered off the launch pad, heading east from the Florida coastline over the Atlantic Ocean. The kerosene-fueled engine—flying without the aid of solid rocket boosters on this flight—fired more than four minutes, then a hydrogen-burning engine on the rocket’s Centaur upper stage took over for a 10-minute burn to reach a targeted 311-mile-high (500-kilometer) orbit.

Amazon’s two test satellites separated from the rocket about 18 minutes after liftoff. ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, confirmed the launch phase of the mission was a success.

“This initial launch is the first step in support of deployment of Amazon’s initiative to provide fast, affordable broadband service to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs, in a press release.

Amazon is aiming to become the third company with a satellite megaconstellation to provide high-speed Internet service from space.

SpaceX said last month its Starlink network, with more than 4,000 operational satellites, has surpassed 2 million active customers and is available on all seven continents. SpaceX continues to launch satellites, sometimes multiple times per week, to add capacity to the Starlink network. OneWeb, which recently merged with the French satellite company Eutelsat, has more than 600 satellites beaming broadband signals from orbit. The slightly higher altitude of OneWeb’s satellites means that its network doesn’t require as many spacecraft for global coverage.

Amazon’s Kuiper constellation will number 3,236 satellites, spread out in 98 orbital planes, or pathways, crisscrossing the planet at an average altitude of about 380 miles (610 kilometers). In its license application with the Federal Communications Commission, Amazon said the Kuiper satellites will fly in mid-inclination orbits, enabling Internet service for customers between 56 degrees north and south latitude.

The two prototype satellites that launched Friday from Cape Canaveral will go through a comprehensive test campaign in orbit. In a press release earlier this week, Amazon wrote that this mission, called the “Protoflight” mission, “will help the Project Kuiper team improve the technology and operations required to deliver fast, affordable broadband from space.”

Amazon's first two prototype Internet satellites were buttoned up for launch inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket.
Enlarge / Amazon’s first two prototype Internet satellites were buttoned up for launch inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket.

“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” said Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, in a company statement. “This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds.”

These pathfinder spacecraft, called KuiperSat 1 and KuiperSat 2, were built in-house by Amazon at a factory in Redmond, Washington. Their mission is to not only test the performance of Amazon’s new satellite design, but also to eventually have Amazon engineers connect the satellites to the Internet using gateway antennas positioned around the world.

“As the mission progresses, we will test the network from end to end, sending data back and forth between the Internet, our ground gateways, the satellites, and our customer terminals,” Amazon said.

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