Amazon to Launch First Kuiper Internet Satellites Next Year on Pint-Sized RS1 Rocket
Amazon has been conducting ground-based testing for its upcoming satellite internet constellation, known as Project Kuiper. While the retail giant doesn’t expect to have a fully deployed network until the latter half of the decade, it will begin orbital testing as soon as late 2022 thanks to a launch contract with a little-known entity called ABL Space Systems. The firm will launch two Kuiper satellites aboard its RS1 rocket.
Amazon isn’t alone in its quest to bring internet access into the space age. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been deploying satellites as part of its Starlink platform for more than a year. It even launched a beta program earlier this year, and it was so successful that the beta label is now gone. But SpaceX has its own rockets like the Falcon 9, which can haul dozens of satellites into orbit, and then land safely on a boat for refurbishment and reuse. That has made SpaceX’s operations extremely cheap — we don’t know exactly how cheap as SpaceX is a private company, but it charges third parties around $62 million total for a launch.
Previously, Amazon inked a deal with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send its first batches of satellites into space aboard nine Atlas V rockets, a less advanced but highly reliable launch system. That will get Amazon on its way to the 3,236 nodes currently planned, but it has until July 2026 to get the first half of the constellation into orbit. The arrangement with ABL is vital, as it will help Amazon get its first two prototypes, called KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, into space where it can conduct essential tests.
The RS1 rocket is much smaller than the Falcon 9, clocking in at 88 feet tall versus 230 feet for the SpaceX rocket. It uses nine 3D-printed EP1 engines, which give it a modest payload capacity of about a ton to get into low-Earth orbit (LEO). The Falcon 9 can hoist 15.6 tons into space with enough fuel left over for a gentle landing. However, Amazon says the RS1 will do just what it needs. “RS1 delivers the right capacity and cost-efficiency to support our mission profile,” Amazon said.
The exact timeline of the launch is up in the air — the companies are aiming for late 2022, but ABL has yet to actually launch any missions with the RS1. Amazon is willing to take a risk here in large part because the rocket is so flexible. It’s fully containerized, making it easy to transport, and the small size means all you need is a 50×150-foot concrete pad and the company’s GS0 launch kit.
After all that, the vital orbital tests could be over in a matter of minutes. Once in space, Amazon will wait for the prototypes to pass over the Texas test facility. Assessing the speed and stability of the connection will be vital to making Kuiper work. We already know Starlink works, so Amazon has to come to market with a working service if it wants to catch up.