Amazon's Kuiper Project contract with Colorado's ULA to allow company to revive plan to recover rocket engines – Denver Business Journal – The Business Journals

The record-setting, 38-launch contract that Amazon’s Kuiper Project has signed with Centennial-based United Launch Alliance is reviving the company’s goal of reusing its rocket engines.
Kuiper Project hired ULA to launch about 1,710 satellites for internet service using 38 of ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur launch vehicles.
ULA will expand its manufacturing capacity to produce enough Vulcan rockets to launch as much as 24 times a year, CEO Tory Bruno says. That launch rate will allow ULA to start trying to recover booster-stage engines after each flight and figure out reusing them, saving the company money and bringing launch costs down.
“Reuse is all about cadence,” Bruno said. “This tells me I’ll have the launch cadence to do it.”
Launching twice a month would double what ULA averages in its busiest years now.
It will make it economically possible to test having the Vulcan’s BE-4 booster-stage engines eject near orbit, glide down under a parafoil to be snagged by a helicopter and then be returned to the ground for refurbishment, Bruno said.
ULA would then reuse the engines in boosters built for future launches.
The Kuiper Project contract, unveiled April 5, was part of the largest launch contract in history, covering 83 launches across three companies. Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin and Europe’s Arianespace won launch contracts for up 27 launches and 18 launches, respectively.
Kuiper Project, an offshoot of online shopping giant Amazon, aims to start high-speed internet service from 3,236 satellites in low-earth orbits, like the Starlink satellite internet started by SpaceX.
It didn’t reveal when it plans to start launching satellites. ULA’s forecast of infrastructure improvements needed to handle the Kuiper Project missions suggest it would be at least two or three years.
Kuiper Project chose the three launch companies with large rockets, each one capable of lifting more than 40 satellites to orbit at a time.
ULA’s Vulcan will be able to carry at least 45 satellites per launch, the company says.
The rocket is scheduled to debut late this year.
It is designed to replace both ULA’s Atlas V rocket and its Delta IV heavy-lift rocket, giving ULA one launch vehicle affordable enough to compete for commercial launch contracts launching satellites to low-Earth orbit and powerful enough to carry large U.S. spy satellites on missions, directly placing them in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles away.
ULA has been the main launcher of U.S. military and spy agency space missions since the company was founded in the 2006 merger of the Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Co. rocketry divisions.
The idea of engine recovery has been eyed by ULA for more than a decade.
“Now we know the business case for it,” Bruno said.
Recovering engines makes more sense for ULA than flying booster stages back to a landing pad, like what SpaceX does, Bruno said. Vulcans will fly high-energy trajectories that take boosters so far from the launch pad that it would require more fuel for a return flight than is practical, he said.
As much as 40% of the fuel on a launch with full booster recovery is used to fly the booster back for a landing, Bruno said.
Carrying all that extra fuel weight cuts into the ability fly with the energy needed to carry and then release large satellites in more distant orbits. Low-Earth orbit destinations lend themselves to booster recovery, and ULA doesn’t fly to low-Earth orbit enough to justify working on full-booster recovery for Vulcan, he said.
“I didn’t architect the rocket for those kinds of missions,” Bruno said.
A study ULA published from 2008, in which it looked at booster and engine recovery for its Atlas V rockets, said that most ULA missions fly on trajectories that drop their booster stages in the ocean close to Africa.
While full booster recovery wouldn’t be practical at those distances, engine recovery looks like it will be.
ULA is designing Vulcan boosters to have the two BE-4 engines in a module that would have a heat shield to protect the engines as they fall back through the atmosphere from 100,000 feet up, slowing them enough for parachutes to deploy and then a steerable parafoil will fly the module on a route allowing a passing aircraft to snag it out of the sky.
Catching the engines in the air instead of fishing them out after a splashdown in the ocean will prevent the engines from being exposed to potentially damaging salt water and make refurbishment simpler, the company predicts.
The engine recovery will be ULA’s first attempt at rocket reuse, but not likely its last.
Once the company has mastered the recovery of booster-stage engines, it will start looking at other expensive items that might be recovered from each flight and reused, Bruno said.
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