Amazon takes on Elon Musk’s Starlink with record space deal

Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance have been chosen to launch the Kuiper satellites, signing the “largest commercial acquisition of launch vehicles in history.”

For a few years now and in particular since Elon Musk’s Starlink has been on the rise, Jeff Bezos has been considering overshadowing it with his own constellation of web satellites, called Kuiper. As it stands, the project is still light years away from that of SpaceX, which already provides a connection to many terminals, particularly in Ukraine. But the founder of Amazon has not said his last word; the firm has just signed a gigantic contract with Arianespace, ULA and… its little sister Blue Origin to catch up.

These third parties will have the heavy responsibility of launching 3236 web satellites. They will be dispatched during 83 separate launches. The exact amount of this pharaonic contract has not been communicated; but according to the Amazon announcement, it would simply be the “largest commercial acquisition of launchers in history”.

The objective will be to deploy the future Kuiper web constellation, which will be operated by Amazon (and not Blue Origin). This system intends to pose as a direct competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink network.

Satellites and receivers like Starlink could change a lot of things in the modern digital ecosystem, and Jeff Bezoz is well aware of this. © Starlink/SpaceX

David versus Goliath

Until then, the latter has established itself as the leader in any category in this segment, at least as far as private companies are concerned. Even before the arrival of the 2nd generation, presented as revolutionary, the service is already operational and displays honest performance despite a substantial price. Starlink seems to be on an excellent dynamic and its competitors will have a lot to do to dislodge it.

But it takes more to get the better of the legendary stubbornness of Jeff Bezos. Overall, it reiterates more or less verbatim the original promises of SpaceX’s Starlink. ” Project Kuiper will provide fast and affordable broadband to tens of millions of customers in uncovered or poorly covered areas around the world said Dave Limp, senior manager of Amazon Devices & Services.

Kuiper will rely directly on Amazon Web Services, the essential cloud platform that underpins much of the world’s web infrastructure. And this is probably where Amazon will have a real card to play. Because if Starlink has an indisputable lead, Amazon is at the head of a technological empire light years away from SpaceX’s infrastructure. And it is indisputably an element that weighs heavily in the balance when it comes to connectivity.

Anyway, for Amazon, this huge contract is indisputably an attempt to catch up on the darling of Twitter. And to achieve this, Amazon has assembled a real shock team.

Ariane 6 is not really promised a bright future, but it will still be able to find a role before handing over to Maïa. © CNES

Arianespace finds a buyer for its cursed rocket

As stated in the introduction, these satellites will be launched by three different third parties. The first is Ariansespace, the European operator of launch services. This is a safe bet for Blue Origin; the institution has in fact absolutely perfect knowledge of low Earth orbit acquired during numerous emblematic missions, including the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope recently.

The operator has agreed to supply no less than 18 Ariane 6 rockets to Amazon, making it the “largest contract in the history of Arianespace”. A real bargain for the latter. Indeed, this Ariane 6 rocket, which should enter service this year, suffers from the same problem as NASA’s SLS; it is an anachronistic device whose development began at a time when the reusable rocket was just a fad for well-to-do science fiction enthusiasts.

But since then, the situation has changed a lot and the single launcher model seems a bit outdated, if not completely obsolete. A decision qualified a posteriori as “bad strategic choice” by Bruno Le Maire himself, and which pushed Europe to start the development of Maïa. It is a new launcher, this time reusable, and therefore with much more obvious future prospects.

But while waiting for Maïa, Arianespace is trying somehow to make development costs profitable. And at this level, the contract undoubtedly represents a huge breath of fresh air; it will enable it to approach the next page of its history more serenely. Overall, this is good news for the European aerospace industry, which continues to pale in comparison to its direct competitors.

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Blue Origin, Amazon’s satellite campaign under the leadership of Jeff Bezos himself, will obviously be there. © Blue Origin

A heavyweight in the industry and a known face as backup

The second lucky winner is United Space Alliance, better known by the acronym ULA. Under its more discreet airs than SpaceX and Blue Origin, it is nevertheless a leading player in American aerospace. It is a benchmark operator that stands out for its exemplary reliability and its absolutely incredible success rate in this industry: 100% compliance with deadlines with a 100% success rate!

He is also a long-time collaborator of Blue Origin; ULA had already committed to supplying nine Atlas V vehicles for the Kuiper program. This new contract further strengthens its prerogatives with no less than 47 launches. Some of these launches will be made through their new Vulcan launcher, an engineering gem that should play a central role in tomorrow’s aerospace.

Amazon’s latest partner is none other than its satellite company Blue Origin – quite a symbol; a collaboration that seemed obvious knowing the proximity between the two structures. The firm led by Jeff Bezos will carry out at least 12 launches aboard its New Glenn rocket.

These three stakeholders now constitute the armed wing of the Kuiper program, and it is clear that it is rather muscular. It remains to be seen whether Amazon will manage to catch up, or even overtake a Starlink which is still largely in the lead.

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