In a space race between two businesses started by Jeff Bezos, it appears that his e-commerce company, Amazon, will beat his rocket company, Blue Origin, to orbit.
Two Amazon prototype satellites are sitting on top of an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. They are part of Project Kuiper, a communications constellation that is to eventually consist of more than 3,200 satellites. It will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink and other space-based internet services.
Liftoff of the rocket is scheduled for no earlier than 2 p.m. Eastern time Friday. During the two-hour window in which the launch could occur, forecasts give a 70 percent chance for favorable weather. The launch will be live streamed on the YouTube channel of United Launch Alliance, which owns the rocket.
After launch, the pair of Amazon satellites will orbit 311 miles above the Earth’s surface. After deployment of the solar panels and tests of the spacecraft’s systems, the satellites will beam internet connections from space to the company’s flat, square antennas for consumers on the ground.
“This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds,” Rajeev Badyal, a vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said in a statement from the company.
Amazon is building satellites and Mr. Bezos’s other company is building rockets, so why isn’t one flying on the other? That is because Blue Origin has yet to launch anything into orbit.
Although its suborbital space tourist rocket New Shepard has made many flights, the New Glenn rocket that it has been developing for more than a decade to take payloads like Kuiper satellites to orbit is at least three years behind schedule. Its debut flight is penciled in for next year.
In April last year, Amazon announced a gigantic purchase of up to 83 launches, the largest commercial purchase of rocket launches ever. That includes 27 from Blue Origin and the rest from two other companies, Arianespace of France and United Launch Alliance of the United States. The contracts with the other companies also rely on new rockets that have not yet flown: the Ariane 6 from Arianespace and the Vulcan from United Launch Alliance.
Amazon also previously announced that it was buying from United Launch Alliance nine launches of the venerable Atlas V rockets. Atlas V has flown for more than two decades but is being retired because it relies on Russian-made rocket engines.
The two satellites, KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, comprise what Amazon calls the Protoflight mission for Kuiper. They were planned to ride as the payload for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket in May. But during a test of a Vulcan upper stage, a leak of hydrogen ignited in a fireball. In July, Tory Bruno, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance, said that the company was working on a fix and that the first flight of Vulcan was still expected before the end of the year.
In August, Amazon announced that it was switching rockets, from the Vulcan to an Atlas V. That was the second rocket switch for the Protoflight. Amazon originally planned to launch KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat- 2 on smaller rockets from ABL Space Systems, but ABL has also experienced delays.
Officials at Blue Origin, Arianespace and United Launch Alliance have said they expect to meet the schedule of Kuiper launches.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates satellite communications to the ground, approved Amazon’s network in 2020. It gave the company a deadline to launch half of its 3,236 satellites by July 2026, with the full constellation to be deployed by July 2029.
A pension fund that owns Amazon stock sued Amazon in August for not buying any launches from SpaceX, which has launched Falcon 9 rockets 70 times this year, and has contracts with other competitors to its Starlink service.
The complaint, filed by the Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, said Amazon’s board approved the launch contracts after only cursory reviews and did not take any actions to protect Amazon from conflicts of interest for Mr. Bezos as the owner of Blue Origin and also the chief executive of Amazon at the time.
“For a year and a half, Bezos was free to identify and negotiate with launch providers for Amazon, while also free to negotiate against Amazon on behalf of Blue Origin,” the lawsuit said.
Blue Origin not only will provide New Glenn launches to Amazon but also profits from the Vulcan launches, because United Launch Alliance is buying Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines to power the booster stage of the Vulcan rockets.
An Amazon spokesman said in a statement, “The claims in this lawsuit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process.”
The lawsuit also recapped years of animosity between Mr. Bezos and Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX.
“Given their bitter track record, Bezos had every reason to exclude Musk’s SpaceX from the process entirely,” the lawsuit said. “And Bezos, it must be assumed, could not swallow his pride to seek his bitter rival’s help to launch Amazon’s satellites.”