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Bezos vs. Musk: Launch of Amazon test satellites latest salvo in billionaire duel

By Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel
Published: October 15, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
FILE - Twitter, now X. Corp., and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses before his talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, May 15, 2023, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. The Securities and Exchange Commission said Thursday, Oct. 5, that it is seeking a court order that would compel Musk to testify as part of an investigation into his purchase of Twitter, now called X.
FILE - Twitter, now X. Corp., and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses before his talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, May 15, 2023, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. The Securities and Exchange Commission said Thursday, Oct. 5, that it is seeking a court order that would compel Musk to testify as part of an investigation into his purchase of Twitter, now called X. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool, File) Photo Gallery

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the battle of space-minded billionaires, Elon Musk has paved the way with SpaceX as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has had to play catchup with his company Blue Origin. The first launch of a pair of satellites for Amazon Friday could prove to be both a boon for the future of Blue Origin and also give Musk some serious competition for one of SpaceX’s money-making ventures.

The duo of test internet-providing satellites are the first for Amazon’s Project Kuiper. The Project Kuiper Protoflight launched Friday afternoon on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex.

Amazon has plans to launch 3,236 of the satellites, with the majority flying from Cape Canaveral on either Bezos’ Blue Origin New Glenn rockets or ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rockets, which will use Blue Origin engines on their first stage.

While Bezos retired from his role of president and CEO of Amazon in 2021, he has remained executive chairman of the board, helping steer its decisions, including where pieces of what the company has said would be a $10 billion overall investment in the program.

Included in that is $120 million to construct a satellite processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center’s former Shuttle Landing Facility set to begin operations by 2025.

The megaconstellation will be a direct competitor for SpaceX’s Starlink, which to date has launched more than 5,200 of its satellites, and garnered more than 1 million internet-service subscribers through the end of 2022. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, that’s far less than the projected 20 million the company expected when Starlink was being pitched to investors.

“They are going full steam ahead with deploying their constellations,” said Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who keeps detailed accounts of satellites in space. He notes the low-Earth orbit currently is approaching 8,000 satellites, the majority of which are from SpaceX, which sent up its first Starlink in 2019, when there were less than 2,000 in orbit.

There could be between 10,000 and 20,000 by the end of this decade and close to 100,000 by 2040, he said noting there are plans for similar satellite constellations from the Chinese, Russia and other private companies including OneWeb.

“What those timescales really are is hard to say,” he said. “It depends on funding. It depends on how profitable these things end up being.”

The launch is the latest game of catchup for Bezos’ companies, which have lost out to SpaceX on several fronts. including a lucrative Department of Defense launch contract that passed over Blue Origin’s New Glenn. NASA also chose SpaceX’s Starship to be the initial human landing system for the Artemis III mission that aims to return humans to the moon, although NASA eventually tapped Blue Origin to pursue a second commercial lander.

Musk has used social media to rib Bezos at every turn while Bezos has gone to court to battle government agency choices when SpaceX comes out on top.

“Turns out (Bezos) retired in order to pursue a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX,” Musk posted at one point on Twitter, now X.

When Amazon announced it would pursue Project Kuiper, Musk tweeted at Bezos that he was a copycat with the help of an emoji.

Amazon, though, with its built-in customer base could reap the benefits of providing what it touts will be “fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world.” And while SpaceX has a head start, delays in its next-generation Starship have also meant delays in its deployment plans for bigger Starlink satellites.

One of the issues facing Amazon’s plans, though, are deadlines set by the Federal Communications Commission, which require Amazon to have at least half of the total constellation in orbit by July 31, 2026, and the entire string deployed by July 30, 2029.

The decision by Amazon to contract with ULA, Blue Origin and Arianespace with its Ariane 6 rocket, all of which remain in development and have yet to make it off the launch pad, has delayed timelines to the point that reaching the FCC milestones could prove impossible. The FCC has not indicated it would allow any sort of extension on the initial license.

Amazon has kept under wraps details about the prototype satellites, named Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2, including how many will be able to launch in each of the heavy-lift rockets.

“Competition often makes things mysterious and exciting,” ULA CEO and President Tory Bruno said this week about the lack of detail on the payloads and launch timeline for this initial Atlas V launch.

Amazon has eight more Atlas V launches that can begin taking up more starting in 2024.

But Atlas V rockets can carry only between 18,000 and 41,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit depending on how many solid rocket boosters it uses. Steve Metayer, Amazon’s vice president of Kuiper production operations, said Atlas V launches will be capable of taking up a couple dozen per launch.

So after all of the Atlas V launches, that’s less than 200 with likely only two years and change left among its other rocket contracts to get a further 1,400 into orbit before the midpoint deadline.

Vulcan Centaur can carry up to 60,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, so it will be able to get more in space. It could be ready to fly before the end of the year. Still, Amazon has to sign off on its test satellites, then ramp up production, ship them to Florida for final fueling and prep, and rely on ULA’s Atlas launches until Vulcan is ready to taken them up as well.

Blue Origin and Arianespace have yet to announce when they will try their two rockets’ first launches.

All three of the heavy lift rockets were supposed to be up and running already, some as early as 2020, but all have faced delays.

One Amazon shareholder, Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, filed a lawsuit in the Delaware Court of Chancery last month against Bezos and the rest of the Amazon board of directors, saying Bezos’ ongoing and public feud with Musk drove the decision to ignore SpaceX as a potential ride to space for its satellites.

“The Amazon Board knowingly abdicated its fiduciary duties and acted in bad faith,” the lawsuit states, citing the lower cost of SpaceX compared to other rocket companies that can routinely hit $100 million per launch as well as the pace with which it’s already launching.

SpaceX has managed 70 launches so far this year alone from its Florida and California pads including dozens for its own Starlink satellites. Musk has said he has no issue working with competitors, having launched OneWeb satellites for instance after that company’s plans to launch on Russian rockets fell through due to the invasion of Ukraine.

In the end, after ULA’s nine Atlas V launches are complete, the remaining contracts with Blue Origin, ULA and Arianespace, the terms of which have not been revealed, is the largest procurement of launches at one time ever made — up to 83 — according to Amazon, and Bezos will be benefiting from nearly 80% of those.

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