On Oct. 6, 2023, United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully delivered into orbit two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation.
The launch took place from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, and the launch vehicle was an Atlas V rocket in the 501 configuration (a configuration that uses a 5-meter fairing, no side-solid rocket boosters, and one engine on the Upper Stage).
Atlas V is capable of carrying up to 8123 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 3,775 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). There have been 7 previous launches of the Atlas V 501 variant to date.
This flight, named “Protoflight“, is a mission to verify the satellite designs, to allow Amazon to test its technology in space before beginning full-scale production next year, and to give the companies practical experience working together.
In addition, this launch is the first mission in partnership between ULA and Amazon to help deploy Project Kuiper’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.
About Project Kuiper
Project Kuiper is a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation that will provide fast, affordable broadband to communities around the world that are currently underserved by traditional internet and communications options.
Amazon began research and development on Project Kuiper in 2018. In July 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Amazon a license to deploy and operate Project Kuiper satellites. If this test is successful, other 3236 satellites will be launched, with more than 70 missions planned to be performed by different launch companies.
Amazon already booked nine launches of the Atlas V rocket, 38 launches of Vulcan Centaur, and 18 Arianespace’s Ariane 6 launches to deploy its satellites. Additionally, another twelve launches (with options for 15 more launches) are scheduled with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, currently under development.
The constellation takes its name from the Kuiper Belt: it’s a large donut-shaped region in the cold, outer reaches of our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers think there are millions of small, icy objects in this region – including hundreds of thousands larger than 100 kilometers wide. Some of the objects, including Pluto, are over 1000 kilometers wide.
Importantly, the region is named after Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who is considered by many to be the father of modern planetary science, and published a scientific paper in 1951 that speculated about objects beyond Pluto.
A Secret Launch
Neither Amazon nor ULA have revealed details about this mission; it’s known that Atlas V placed Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 in a 500 km orbit with an inclination of 30 degrees.
At this time we know that the spacecrafts were deployed approximately 18 minutes after liftoff, at which point Amazon assumed control of the satellites and started the test.
Previously, Amazon revealed that the Project has three main parts: ground infrastructure, satellites, and customer terminals.
- Ground infrastructure includes gateway antennas that securely send and receive customer data to and from satellites, and telemetry, tracking, and control antennas that keep the satellites properly operating.
- Satellites are the second part of the project and relay data traffic to and from gateway antennas and customers.
- The third part are the customer terminals that will be used to receive broadband service and will begin to be distributed in 2024.