More than four years after Jeff Bezos announced Amazon (AMZN)’s Project Kuiper, a satellite-based internet service meant to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon is finally taking a major step closer to launching its first satellites. The e-commerce giant said on July 21 it plans to spend $120 million on building a facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for processing and launching more than 3,200 Kuiper satellites as soon as next year. The facility, spanning 31,000 square meters, will be a spaceport used to prepare and integrate Kuiper satellites with Amazon’s many launch partners, including Bezos’s Blue Origin.
Amazon obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) back in July 2020 to deploy up to 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit, but hasn’t launched any. Under the FCC’s rules, Amazon needs to launch and operate half the constellation, or 1618 satellites, by July 2026 and the other half by July 2029. Those deadlines allow Amazon little time to get the Florida facility ready. The current construction timeline suggests the site won’t be operational until 2025. Amazon aims to begin a small-scale customer program, which will require more than 500 working satellites, before the end of 2024, and it may use a third-party launch site until the Florida spaceport is ready for use, a company spokesperson told SpacesNews.
Amazon manufactures Kuiper satellites at a factory in Kirkland, Wash. near the company’s Seattle headquarters. Kuiper expects to launch its first two prototype satellites—“KuiperSat-1” and “KuiperSat-2”—in the fourth quarter of this year.
Bezos’s space turf war with Musk
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the two leading characters in the billionaire space race. Their space companies compete on various fronts, from NASA Moon contracts to space tourism to satellite internet. Musk has called Project Kuiper a “copy cat” of Starlink and mocked Bezos’s apparent lack of devotion to his space ventures.
Throughout Covid, Amazon and SpaceX sparred often before the FCC over rights to the radio spectrum at which satellites transmit signals in space. To date, SpaceX has deployed more than 5,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and has the FCC’s permission to launch about 7,000 more. Amazon is concerned the abundance of Starlink satellites in space would interfere with future Kuiper satellites. Amazon has committed more than $10 billion to Project Kuiper. The vast majority of that money has gone into launching satellites into orbit. Amazon has hired every major rocket company except SpaceX. It has bought more than 90 missions from the United Launch Alliance (ULA), Europe’s Arianespace and Bezos’s Blue Origin. However, three of the rockets that are supposed to launch Kuiper have yet to be built: ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, Arianespace’s Ariane 6, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. The only rocket ready for use is the ULA’s Atlas 5.
Much of Project Kuiper’s progress so far was made under Bezos’s leadership. The Amazon founder stepped down from his CEO position in the summer of 2021 and handed most of the day-to-day responsibilities over to his successor, Andy Jassy. Bezos is still Amazon’s executive chairman. The company is scheduled to report second-quarter earnings on July 26.