Amazon has placed the largest ever order for commercial rocket launches, booking up much of the global capacity for the next five years as part of its Project Kuiper plan for satellite broadband
6 April 2022
A multibillion-dollar booking of satellite-launching rockets has suddenly made Amazon one of the busiest space-flight operators on the planet. Will the tech giant’s attempt to corner much of the launch market quash the ambitions of smaller satellite operators, or could this light the fuse on a whole new generation of rocket firms?
On 5 April, Amazon astonished the space industry by revealing that it had placed the biggest set of orders for orbital rockets in space-flight history, buying no less than 83 launches over the next five years to place more than 3000 of its Project Kuiper broadband internet satellites into low Earth orbit. The price paid hasn’t been disclosed, but is thought to be around $10 billion.
Like SpaceX and OneWeb, Amazon is hoping to provide global internet connectivity to areas of the world underserved by traditional wired telecommunications firms. But Amazon is currently way behind on the competitive curve. “Kuiper is playing catch-up to [SpaceX’s] Starlink and OneWeb, which are already mid-way deployed,” says Greg Sadlier, a London-based analyst at space-flight consultancy Know.space.
But the sheer size of the rocket orders Amazon has placed – with United Launch Alliance, Arianespace and Blue Origin – is raising questions over just how much launch capacity will remain for other would-be satellite operators. Sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have seen Soyuz rockets ruled out as a satellite launch option for Western firms – even OneWeb, formerly launching on Soyuz, is now being flown by SpaceX – so for those not booked on SpaceX Falcon 9 flights, what are the options?
“If Amazon has kind of absorbed most of the launch capability, what’s left for everybody else? Where do other operators go to launch their systems?” says Hugh Lewis, a space scientist at the University of Southampton in the UK.
This could be of particular concern for operators wanting to replace remote sensing and Earth observation satellites when they reach the end of their lives, he says, with the scale of Amazon’s order reducing launch availability for others.
One option could be to purchase a ride on rockets launched by the Japanese or Indian space agencies, but this generally only works if customers are happy for their satellites to be placed in the same orbit as the primary payload, which is usually dictated by the government. China also has its own rockets, but generally solely offers ride-shares to domestic firms.
All is not lost, however: a raft of companies are now developing a new generation of rockets designed to launch smallsats – those in the sub-1500-kilogram range. The NewSpace Index, which tracks smallsat launchers, lists more than 180 potential vehicles, though more than 80 per cent are still in the development or concept stages.
Companies entering the smallsat rocket fray include start-ups Astra and ABL Space Systems in the US, and Orbex and Skyrora in the UK. Amazon is already involved in this arena as well: it is set to launch two test versions of its Project Kuiper internet satellites on an ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket later this year.
So through its massive rocket order, Amazon may have done the smallsat rocket-makers a favour by forcing other operators to seek a ride elsewhere. It is now up to these emerging businesses to come up with the goods. “They will need to rise to the supply challenge to meet that demand,” says Sadlier.
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