Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

29 November 2022

EU affirms geopolitical ambitions in unveiling IRIS² satellite constellation

Following a week of speculation and rumors, the European Commission (EC) last week formally unveiled its new multi-orbit satellite constellation plan, IRIS². IRIS² was conceived almost two years ago, first proposed by Thierry Breton, former Orange CEO and French finance minister, and now EU Commissioner for Internal Market.

While the announcement contained essentially no details on the network architecture, and public information on the project exists only in rough strokes, it has a set of clearly defined goals and objectives. Current projections place the constellation’s cost at around €6bn, with €2.4bn to come from EU, and €3.6bn from the European Space Agency (ESA) and private funds, though these cost estimates date from late 2020 and are almost certain to be exceeded.

The EU’s expectations of IRIS² are clear:

  • It is to include an end-to-end quantum-secure communications system for use by European governments around the world.
  • It is to be a sovereign European project, under full control of the bloc. As such, suppliers and network operators will have to abide by stringent security and eligibility criteria.
  • These criteria are vital, seeing as the constellation will be, first and foremost, focused on providing government services to EU members.
  • The ability to provide broadband access to currently underserved regions in the bloc, but also the entirety of Africa, is welcome but ranks behind national security interests in terms of priority.
  • IRIS² will see European ‘NewSpace’ players (start-ups) contribute around 30% of the work, with the aim of stimulating and fostering a homegrown space industry.
  • IRIS² will be multi-orbital and capable of integrating with existing EU constellations Copernicus and Galileo.

IRIS² is to consist of around 200 satellites in multiple orbital planes. While the bulk of them will be low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, medium-earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites will also be part of the network.

Chief among the “stringent” security and eligibility criteria will certainly be European pedigree, though this might not be enough for all stakeholders. French satellite operator Eutelsat, for example, with its recent merger talks with UK-based OneWeb, might have eliminated itself from consideration for the program, now that the UK is no longer an EU member.

Concerns here center around the UK government’s ‘golden share’ stake in OneWeb, which it rescued from bankruptcy not long ago in a bid to secure the UK’s strategic satellite capability. The UK’s golden share could result in limited sovereign European control over the constellation. While structures safeguarding EU and UK interests could also conceivably be set up, Thierry Breton remains deeply opposed to Eutelsat’s involvement, opting instead for total EU control over the constellation, and his voiced his opposition publicly as recently as October. A 6% stake in Eutelsat held by China Investment Corporation may be a further barrier to heavy Eutelsat involvement.

Two tenders, one aimed at traditional aerospace and satellite companies, and the other at space small-medium enterprises  and start-ups, were released following the initial announcements in late 2020. First, in the traditional aerospace sector, an Airbus-led consortium was awarded an €8.7m contract for a one-year feasibility study. Consortium members include Thales-Alenia Space, OHB, Eutelsat, SES, Arianespace and Telespazio.

A year later, in December 2021, a separate tender, aimed at the NewSpace scene, saw two consortia, French-led New Symphonie, and German-led UN:IO, awarded €1.4m each for a six-month study to come up with a detailed technical concept for the satellite network architecture.

These preliminary contracts do not necessarily point to future network operators and suppliers but some players are already manoeuvering for position. For instance, in September this year, SES took a 25% stake in the Munich-based UN:IO consortium, while also remaining part of the Airbus-led consortium.

The project will employ advanced technology such as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) to provide secure communications channels. QKD is a technique ensuring total security for point-to-point communication. It uses quantum phenomena to encode and transfer information between two points.

These quantum phenomena should ensure that the communication channel is secure, with any attempts to eavesdrop or intercept either thwarted outright or detected by the communicating parties. QKD is used to securely share cryptographic keys which are then used to encrypt further communications using quantum-secure algorithms.

While considered unconditionally secure from interception by outside observers in theory, even given unlimited classical and quantum computing resources, in practice QKD is not invincible. Attack vectors exist and will conceivably relate to the hardware supporting a QKD system, but also, as with all ‘secure’ systems, to the human factor and physical access to devices.

It is in this context that a partnership was announced in September between SES, ESA and the European Commission, focused on the construction of a satellite-based quantum-secure communications system. The satellite, EAGLE-1, is to be controlled from Luxemburg, which, in recent years has risen to the forefront of the European space industry. SES, in 2021, already worked with the EU to establish a quantum communications control and command center in Luxemburg as part of the EU’s wider European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI) initiative.

While the EAGLE-1 project is not strictly part of the IRIS² tender process, insights and experiences with the three-year project will no doubt find application with the constellation. As such, SES is likely to play a significant role in the future of IRIS². Crucially, Luxemburg holds certain veto powers with regard to SES’s ownership structure, with no individual shareholder permitted to hold more than 20%, 33 or 50%, directly or indirectly, without its approval.

IRIS² and the EuroQCI initiative form part of the bloc’s recent drive towards increased collective sovereignty. Already challenged by the Eurozone, refugee and Brexit crises of the 2010s, the US presidency of Donald Trump raised concerns over the EU’s  strategic, decades-long reliance on the USA, in terms of security, political alliance and technology, as a potentially serious vulnerability.

Further events in the past few years have shifted relationships with China and Russia and intensified the drive to establish the EU as a leading geopolitical force. A January 2022 speech by Breton, at the European Space Conference, further illuminated the European drive towards increased sovereignty and independence.

The fostering of strategic industries and capabilities in Europe through increased public procurement schemes aims to provide the NewSpace and aerospace sectors with stability and security. Of particular focus here are payloads, and most importantly launch capabilities. The EU further wants to take an active role in ‘de-risking’ new technologies for the benefit of domestic companies. A potential vehicle for this is the Cassini investment fund, around €1bn-strong and overseen by the European Investment Fund.

Increasingly, defense considerations are to take center stage in the EU’s thinking. In the speech, Breton announced an end to purely civilian EU projects in space. From this point on, all projects are to provide dual military and civilian services. Furthermore, current projects are to be upgraded or amended to provide better military use cases, where possible.

Another undesirable dependency was identified as space tracking capability. Currently, the EU relies almost completely on the US government for the tracking of debris in space. A pivot in space traffic management (STM) strategy will see the establishment of a European Space Command, to shoulder this responsibility. The dual military-civilian use cases are clear here as well.

Following the rapid commercialization of space by private companies and government actors over the course of the past decade, the EU feared becoming a technological backwater and being over-reliant on foreign governments and companies. Its entry into the LEO constellation is late, when compared to the rest of the world.

IRIS² is the latest in a number of LEO constellations in the planning or deployment phase around the world, a symptom of the increasing commercialization of space, in particular LEO, enabled by the reduction in launch costs over the past decade.

In the USA, SpaceX’s StarLink LEO constellation, by far the largest existing LEO constellation, recently underwent its baptism of fire in Ukraine, proving its worth as a strategic asset, though its suitability for broadband services is unproven so far. It is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over access to government subsidies for providing rural broadband services to underserved regions under the agency’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Other changes are happening among the most established players. A proposed merger between two satellite operators, the UK’s Inmarsat and the USA’sViasat, is currently being held up by the UK’s Competition and Market Authority over in-flight connectivity concerns. If it is approved, it is expected to produce the world’s largest satellite operator by revenue, and, more importantly, would see Inmarsat’s planned LEO constellation, roughly 170-strong, migrate to the USA. Viasat in turn generates most of its revenues through its governmental services offerings, it is conceivable, it would put its LEO capacity at the availability of the US government.

More plans are in the works, however, with the FCC having received applications for 64 000 additional satellites over the past year alone. Notable proposed constellations include Boeing’s proposed 136-satellitelaunch, and Canada’s Telesat’s 298-strong Lightspeed. OneWeb currently has a 648-strong constellation in planning. Astra Space is another US operator planning a massive roll-out, with a roster of 13,620 satellites once complete.

Other nations have also invested in LEO constellations and space-based communications infrastructure. China is keen to exploit LEO technology and recently merged two planned constellations, 864-strong Hongyun and 320-strong Hongyan, into one national network, Guo Wang (‘National Network’), run by a government-owned company of the same name. As part of the merger, it added an additional 11,800 satellites, bringing the total number up to 13,000.

Even in their pursuit of quantum-secure communications, the various EU programs lag behind the rest of the world, though not as severely as in LEO. Back in 2016, China launched its Micius mission to trial satellite-based QKD systems. Following successful tests, it has planned the launch of a more mature system for 2026.

While the EU may have missed the first wave of LEO roll-out and is behind the rest of the world with deployment and maybe even planning, its drive for increased sovereignty is credible and its efforts comprehensive. It must remain to be seen how well-suited IRIS² will be to providing broadband services to underserved European regions.

The relatively small size of the IRIS² fleet, plus the the significant coverage area and number of people it would aim to serve with broadband, make it an unlikely rival to any dedicated commercial satellite-broadband systems. Furthermore, the EU’s priority for government services may constrain IRIS² as a commercial service in a competitive scenario.

The wider drive for sovereignty, and the supply chain disruption triggered by the Covid pandemic, are not confined to satellite. In an attempt to establish healthy, domestic industries, the EU is likely to consider other sectors for strategic stimulation as well. Its stated focus is on increasing public procurement-based projects and partnerships, as with IRIS².

This approach could be applied to advanced technology such as semiconductors, and there has already been considerable discussion and lobbying around an EU-centric ecosystem for Open RAN. We may well see several strategic technology sectors receiving similar attention and investment to that in the NewSpace sector of SME specialists.