On Tuesday, May 2, a consortium comprising nearly every major European satellite company announced their plan to bid for a proposed satellite constellation, IRIS², that aims to provide global communications.
This constellation will give the European Union (EU) low-Earth orbit connectivity, similar to what SpaceX’s Starlink offers.
The consortium, which includes Airbus Defence and Space, Eutelsat, SES, Thales Alenia Space, Deutsche Telekom, Hispasat, OHB, Orange, Hisdesat, and Telespazio, is responding to the EU’s request for help in constructing a sovereign constellation that provides secure communications for government services, including military applications.
Costs and Timeline
The constellation, named Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite (IRIS²), was announced by European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton last November.
The European Union has allocated €2.4 billion for the project, with additional contributions expected from the European Space Agency and private investors.
This partnership aims to create a state-of-the-art satellite constellation based on a multi-orbit architecture (just like Starlink). Although the consortium comprises mostly established industry players, it will encourage startups in the European space sector to join the coalition. This move is in line with Breton’s desire to broaden the European commercial space sector.
The cost of the constellation is estimated at around €6 billion, and the goal is to have it ready to provide global coverage by 2027.
Both the budget and the timeline for this project are ambitious, given the coordination required and the fact that Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket may not have the spare launch capacity to get hundreds of satellites into low-Earth orbit starting in the mid-2020s.
Reminder: the Ariane 6 rocket will not debut until 2024 at the earliest.
However, European officials felt the need to make this move to remain a major player in spaceflight activities, which increasingly include satellite-based communications.
Against Starlink and Others
European officials did not want to be reliant on Elon Musk and his Starlink constellation, which already provides secure global communications like those that IRIS² aims to deliver. Leaders are already hesitant to rely on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for the launch of some of its satellites, and officials had similar reservations about Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation.
China is also developing its own megaconstellation, but Europe does not want to hand over its secure communications to a global rival with questionable intentions.
OneWeb is another option, but this network is partially owned by the United Kingdom, which recently left the European Union, and may not have the capacity to meet all of Europe’s needs.
The European Space Agency’s experience in developing the Galileo and Copernicus constellations will aid in the project’s success. However, coordinating with all these partners presents a significant challenge, and it is unclear whether the bureaucracy of the European Government can move the project forward expeditiously toward the 2027 target date.
SpaceX launched its first two test satellites in February 2018 and took approximately four years to begin rolling out global coverage on its Starlink network. However, SpaceX had some significant advantages, including having zero bureaucracy, ample funding, and the world’s only reusable, high-cadence rocket, and a willingness to spend private capital.
The European consortium must overcome these challenges to succeed in creating a rival constellation to Starlink.
IRIS² goal is to constitute a new space-based pillar for a digital, resilient, and safer Europe, and to foster European competitiveness and societal progress.
The system will offer enhanced communication capacities to governmental and business users, including mass-market applications such as mobile and fixed broadband satellite access, satellite trunking for B2B services, satellite access for transportation, reinforced networks by satellite and satellite broadband, and cloud-based services.
Moreover, it will rely on quantum cryptography through the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI) and enhanced cybersecurity through a secure-by-design approach for the infrastructure, which will bring an unprecedented security level to its users.
The system will also integrate innovative technologies, derived from both established space industry players with proven technology as well as the disruptive “New Space” ecosystem and offer scalability capacities for future needs, thanks to a multi-orbital (Low, Medium, and Geosynchronous Orbits) approach.
While the program offers a positive outlook, it is important to consider the potential skepticism around the initiative, particularly as the EU needs to act urgently to ensure guaranteed access in an unrestricted manner to global satellite connectivity, which is rapidly becoming a strategic asset for security, safety, and resilience.