Amazon’s plans to launch the first prototype satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation have changed for the second time in a year — and once again, rocket development snags are the reason.
The revised plans call for Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 to be sent into low Earth orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, with launch set for no earlier than Sept. 26 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The spacecraft are meant to test the systems and processes that Amazon will use for thousands of satellites designed to provide global internet access. Production of those satellites is scheduled to begin this year at a 172,000-square-foot factory in Kirkland, Wash.
Originally, Amazon planned to have the prototypes launched last year on ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket, but ABL repeatedly ran into setbacks during development of the rocket. (Its first RS1 launch failed in January.)
Last October, Amazon switched the Kuipersat launch to ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. The plan called for the prototypes to go into orbit as secondary payloads on the first-ever Vulcan launch, with Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander as the primary payload.
At that time, the Vulcan launch was set for early 2023; however, issues involving the readiness of the lander and the rocket have caused a string of delays since then. In March, the rocket’s Centaur V second stage exploded during a pre-launch test, due to a hydrogen leak. ULA has reinforced the Centaur’s structure to address the problem, but further testing could require further delays.
Last week, a filing with the Federal Communications Commission suggested that ULA was planning to launch the Kuipersats on its tried-and-true Atlas V rocket rather than on the first Vulcan rocket. Amazon and ULA confirmed the switch today.
“ULA is working backward from a launch date in fall 2023,” Amazon said in an updated blog posting. “We will have more detail to share as the mission approaches.”
Although Amazon didn’t provide further details, the realities of the company’s development timetable probably factored into the decision to make the switch. Under the terms of its FCC license, Amazon is required to have half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation operating in low Earth orbit by mid-2026. Even though ULA insists it’s on track to launch Vulcan by the end of this year, Amazon may have decided to reduce the risk of further postponements.
Amazon has reserved nine Atlas V launches as part of its grand plan to deploy the Project Kuiper constellation, and next month’s launch counts as one of those nine.
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