Amazon is gearing up to launch two test satellites for its Project Kuiper satellite internet constellation, built to compete with services like SpaceX Starlink and OneWeb. In a press release on WednesdayThe company says the prototypes, charmingly named Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2, will enter orbit on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in early 2023.
The company says the launch will allow testing of its satellite network technology with data from space and that the data will “help finalize design, implementation and operational plans for our commercial satellite system.” The time frame marks a slight delay from Amazon’s original plan; last year, the company announced that it would launch the prototypes in the fourth quarter of 2022, using a completely different rocket from the company ABL Space Systems.
There’s a lot that’s (not quite) up in the air
Early 2023 isn’t too far off, but there are still a lot of things that need to go right for the launch to happen on schedule. First, Amazon must actually complete construction of the satellites, which will be completed later this year, according to the press release. The rocket isn’t ready yet – ULA said in a press release on Wednesday that it expects to have Vulcan fully assembled by November and testing in December – for now, however, it has yet to install the engines. It’s not exactly a proven launch pad either; this will be the rocket’s first flight.
Both companies must meet deadlines. As The Washington Post points out, ULA must launch Vulcan twice before Q4 2023 to prove it is reliable enough to perform missions for the US Space Force. Meanwhile, Amazon must launch half of its satellites by 2026 to maintain its FCC license. That’s further away than late next year, but since Amazon’s constellation will consist of 3,236 satellites, quite a few launches will be needed in the coming years. Thirty-eight of them are ready to use the Vulcan, while several others will be with rockets from Arianespace and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. (Fun fact: the BE-4 engines (which Vulcan uses is also from Blue Origin.) Noticeably absent from the list of partners is SpaceX, which other satellite providers such as Lynk and AST have used SpaceMobile to launch equipment into space.
Once its fleet of satellites is in orbit, Amazon says its plan is to “provide fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world.” It also has an agreement with Verizon to act as a backhaul for LTE or 5G remote cell towers.