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What IRIS² means for EU’s space industry

May 3, 2023

The fact that the IRIS² satellite consortium includes just about every major name in the European space business provides a strong clue as to the project’s overall importance. IRIS², with a nod to the Greek goddess of mythology and messenger of the gods and also in its own EU-speak, Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite.

Those project names include Airbus, Eutelsat, Hispasat, SES and Thales Alenia who head up the consortium, while Deutsche Telekom, OHB, Orange, Hisdesat, Telespazio and Thales are also participating.

The names are almost identical to a preliminary batch of companies which was selected by the European Commission (EC) to conduct a preliminary study back in December 2020 of the project. The only differences are that Arianespace has departed and Deutsche Telekom and Thales have come into the portfolio. Arianespace’s departure is not a surprise given that the EC wants to keep the launch segment separate from the plan, build and operation of the system.

While detail as to which participant would do what is far from clear just yet. However, the likes of SES, Eutelsat and Hispasat would probably supply their orbital assets which will include geostationary satellites as well as the SES O3b/mPOWER fleet and Eutelsat’s OneWeb assets once its merger with OneWeb is completed. The SES/Luxembourg joint venture GovSat would almost certainly be included in the mix.

The public-private grouping must also demonstrate to the EC’s satisfaction that it has the financial muscle to complete the task. The new system, a ‘Europe Mk III’, will follow on from the existing Galileo and Copernicus systems, and thus a third satellite constellation for Europe.

The system will support a large variety of governmental applications, mainly in the domains of situational awareness (e.g., border surveillance), crisis management (e.g., humanitarian aid) and connection and protection of key infrastructures (e.g., secure communications for EU embassies).

On the commercial side, it will allow mass-market high-speed applications, including 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.

“The teaming partners will leverage synergies between government and commercial infrastructure […] and are also well-positioned to provide commercial service to bridge the digital divide across European territories and to increase Europe’s global outreach and competitiveness as a space and digital power in the global market,” said the project’s statement.

The project has an initial EU budget of €2.4 billion (and with further cash coming from the consortium and European Space Agency). The eventual cost is projected to be €6 billion and spent over 12 years.

The EC says:

  • IRIS² will be a constellation focused on government services, including defence applications.
  • IRIS² will provide connectivity to the whole of Europe, including areas that do not currently benefit from broadband Internet, as well as to the whole of Africa, using the constellation’s North-South orbits.
  • IRIS² will be a “new space” constellation in “the European way”, integrating the know-how of the major European space industries – but also the dynamism of our start-ups, who will build 30 per cent of the infrastructure.
  • IRIS² will be a constellation at the cutting edge of technology, to give Europe a lead, for example in quantum encryption. It will therefore be a vector of innovation.
  • IRIS² will be a multi-orbit constellation, capable of creating synergies with our existing Galileo and Copernicus constellations. The objective here is to reduce the risk of space congestion.

According to EC statements, IRIS² will start being deployed in 2024-2025 and be in full use by 2027.

The satellite system will tap into some existing orbital assets in Low, Medium and geostationary orbits but also require new satellites to be built, launched and deployed. Some 170 new Low Earth orbiting satellites will be added by the consortium.

There is no guarantee that the EC will accept the consortium’s proposals. The Commission will evaluate the proposals and issue a tender document on May 25th. Then, detailed proposals must be submitted by July 31st and further evaluated by the EC and a decision due by December 13th. An announcement on the successful bidder will be made by January 26th next year.

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