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Amazon Internet Program, Project Kuiper, to Launch Satellite

Amazon's secretive $10 billion satellite Internet program, Project Kuiper, will send its first satellites into space on rockets owned by United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture, Amazon announced.

(TNS) — Amazon's secretive $10 billion satellite internet program, Project Kuiper, will send its first satellites into space on nine rockets owned by United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing- Lockheed Martin venture, Amazon announced Monday.

Questions remain as to when the rockets bearing Kuiper satellites will get off the ground. Redmond-headquartered Project Kuiper has yet to launch a test satellite, and Amazon declined to say when the ULA launch could occur.

It's also unclear when Kuiper's internet network could be operational. The ULA launches are likely to lift fewer than 500 Kuiper satellites into orbit, satellite consultant Tim Farrar estimated, based on the capacity of the rockets and details Amazon has revealed about the possible size of its satellites. That's less than the roughly 578 satellites Amazon told the FCC it would need to operate a limited internet network.

The Seattle tech giant has said it ultimately plans to launch 3,236 satellites, half of which must be in orbit by the end of July 2026, according to the terms of its Federal Communications Commission authorization. It's unknown who might build that fleet: Kuiper employs roughly 500 people, but Amazon has characterized its Redmond satellite facility as devoted to research and development, not manufacturing.

Amazon's announcement comes amid a flurry of publicity for crosstown satellite internet rival Starlink, owned by Elon Musk's SpaceX. Industry watchers expect the FCC to approve in the coming days a modification to Starlink's satellite fleet that competitors — like Amazon's Kuiper — say could make it more difficult for them to operate. NASA revealed Friday it had picked SpaceX to land the next Americans on the surface of the moon.

" SpaceX is sucking up a lot of air in conversations about the future of space," Farrar said. The ULA contract announcement "gets Amazon back out there as people to be taken very seriously."

Starlink, which is also based in Redmond, has 1,300 satellites in orbit out of a planned 12,000. Its satellites are much smaller than the models Amazon is likely to unveil, making them easier to loft into space — though critics of the Musk venture say it operates on a launch-first, update-later model that means its satellites fail at relatively high rates.

Starlink benefits from the relative maturity of SpaceX's rocket program. Most Starlink satellites have recently been sent up on SpaceX rockets — including one whose reentry into Earth's atmosphere sent fiery space junk streaking across Seattle skies last month. By contrast, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' spaceflight company, Blue Origin, recently delayed the launch of its first rocket capable of carrying people and payloads into orbit.

A limited beta version of Starlink's satellite internet service is already operational. Early adopters — which include Washington's Hoh Tribe and the state Department of Emergency Management — pay $499 for the dish and then $99 a month.

Musk and Bezos sparred in recent months over SpaceX's petition asking the FCC to allow its satellites to operate in a lower orbit than initially planned. Amazon has said that would risk interference and collisions with its planned Kuiper satellites.

SpaceX's proposal "would hamstring competition among satellite systems," Amazon tweeted in January from its official news account.

Amazon declined to disclose the value of the ULA contract.

The Boeing-Lockheed partnership emerged in 2005, after Boeing was accused of stealing thousands of sensitive documents from Lockheed to gain an edge in the companies' ferocious rivalry for government rocket launch contracts. Boeing paid $615 million to settle a Justice Department investigation into those allegations.

(c)2021 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.