The second richest man in the world, with a fortune valued by Forbes magazine at 171 billion dollars and founder of the Amazon empire, Jeff Bezos, has taken a new giant step, confirming that his mind and his sights are set on the big business that can be glimpsed from outer space.
In an unprecedented three-way manoeuvre in the space sector, Bezos has just signed a mega-contract that ensures he has almost a hundred rockets at his disposal over the next five years. With them he aims to realise his Kuiper project, which consists of deploying 3,236 Ka-band satellites in orbit to provide broadband and high-speed Internet access - at 400 megabits per second - to millions of people all over the world, from individuals to companies and official institutions.
The American tycoon, who stepped down as CEO of Amazon in July 2021 - although he remains as executive chairman of its Board of Directors - has just formalised the largest commercial space commitment in history. Through its subsidiary Kuiper Systems LLC, Amazon has become the world's largest purchaser of launchers, acquiring 93 flights into space.
With a total planned investment of $10 billion, the undisputed king of global e-commerce plans to manufacture more than three thousand small Kuiper satellites at its factory under construction in Redmon, in the north-west of the United States. Then launch and position them in low orbit around the entire earth at 590, 610 and 630 kilometres altitude.
Amazon wants to start providing services when it has 578 active satellites, but has not said when that will be. The next step is to add up to 1,600 satellites and have them operational by 30 July 2026. The third is to have all 3,236 in the constellation in space by the end of July 2029. If it succeeds, it will keep the rights granted to it by the US Federal Communications Commission in August 2020. If not, it will lose them, unless there is a moratorium.
The initiative of the entrepreneur Bezos is a real challenge to the Starlink constellation of his competitor Elon Musk, who with 219 billion dollars in his portfolio occupies the first position in the exclusive ranking of billionaires and is going to increase his fortune after the purchase of nearly 10% of Twitter's shares.
Musk's ambition is to put more than 7,000 satellites into orbit, also to provide broadband and space internet on a global scale. With more than 400 small satellites already deployed, he has made his terminals and network available to President Volodymir Zelensky since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine to confront the Russian military forces.
Bezos is clearly not playing a one-card game. He has diversified most of the launches to deploy his Kuiper satellites on three rockets from three different launch service companies: the American giant United Launch Alliance (ULA); the European company Arianespace; and his own space company, Blue Origin. "All three carriers offer the right combination of capability, performance and cost to meet our needs," he said.
But despite diversifying, Bezos is taking big risks. Of the three launchers he has contracted on 5 April, none has yet made its maiden flight. Their first launches are scheduled for the second half of 2022 at the earliest, which means their reliability is unknown and their insurance policies, if taken out, will be high.
Bezos has agreed to nine firings with the veteran Atlas V launcher and 38 firings with ULA's new Vulcan Centaur, which incorporates advanced technologies and innovative features. The latter is an evolution of Boeing's Delta IV and Lockheed Martin's Atlas V, which the Pentagon and NASA use to send their science platforms and military spacecraft into space, respectively.
Among the main new features of the Vulcan Centaur is the powerful new 2.4 meganewton BE-4 rocket engine - equivalent to 244 tonnes of thrust - fuelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is in the final stages of development.
The same BE-4 engine will propel Blue Origin's New Glenn, the apple of Jeff Bezos' eye, a launcher whose first stage must confirm that it is reusable, similar to that of the Falcon 9 of his competitor Elon Musk's company SpaceX. The tycoon has contracted for 12 launches, with an option for an additional 15, provided that New Glenn proves in 2023 that it works as it is scheduled to do.
The third beneficiary of Bezos's shower of millions of dollars is the European company Arianespace, with a majority of French capital. It has been awarded 18 launches with the new Ariane 6, which should take off for the first time from French Guiana at the end of this year... or early 2023.
All of this will be preceded, sooner rather than later this year, by a single launch of the RS1 rocket from the American company ABL Space System. Two prototypes - KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 - are to be launched into space and evaluated in orbit before the launch of the serial platforms can begin. In total, the entire deployment will cost Jeff Bezos between $5.5 billion and $7 billion.
Amazon's initiative leaves out major players in the space access market, most notably SpaceX and its proven Falcon 9 reusable launcher, owned by competitor Elon Musk. Nor did Bezos count out Japan's new H-3 rocket from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is also awaiting its maiden launch.
Given the international geostrategic situation, China's Long March family of rockets, India's PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mark III rockets and, of course, Russia's Soyuz, Proton and Angara are also absent from contributing to the deployment of the Kuiper architecture.
The big beneficiary of Amazon's megaproject is the US space industry and, in parallel, the European space industry. ULA has already announced that it will expand its launch facilities and production line. The Airbus Space Systems factory in Madrid will significantly increase its production rate of equipment for the Ariane 6 launcher, which should lead to the creation of new jobs.