IRIS² – How the EU Constellation is Taking Shape
Europe’s third flagship space project IRIS² represents a key staging point when it comes to space capabilities in Europe. We take a look at how the IRIS² constellation is taking shape, including its challenges, opportunities and inclusion of small businesses.
August 28, 2023
Europe’s third flagship space project - IRIS² represents a key staging point when it comes to space capabilities in Europe. With governmental and commercial use cases expected, the development of this new secure satellite constellation is the European Union’s pursuit of greater security, interconnectivity, and broadband access.
While U.S.-based SpaceX is developing the Starlink broadband constellation, and China is developing a sovereign Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation, IRIS² is not simply about Europe joining the fray. While greater access to broadband helps reduce the digital divide across the continent and stimulates new use cases for satellite in parallel, the constellation program is about responding to the dark side of this global interconnectivity.
This interconnectedness, characterized by an ever-increasing hyper-connectivity megatrend, means that disruptions in connectivity can have far-reaching consequences. Conversely, the coverage gap itself represents vulnerability as it reduces the efficacy of enabled emergency and security efforts in the times of disasters. The IRIS² program aims to ensure resilience while avoiding the creation of new technological dependencies. This is particularly important for the security- and safety-critical missions and operations managed by the EU and its Member States.
By providing sovereign, secure and reliable ubiquitous connectivity, the EU says it will be able to better secure its borders, enable key infrastructures such as smart grids, telemedicine and institutional communications, and support crisis management and security forces. It’s intended to meet the widespread digitization of the economy and society, and the increasing geopolitical and cybersecurity threats.
This multi-orbital satellite infrastructure operated by European technological leadership is to enhance Europe's strategic autonomy and resilience. At the same time, it is intended to enhance Europe’s geopolitical influence in the Arctic, Africa, and other areas of strategic interest.
A Healthy Dose of Ingenuity
Looking beyond Europe’s geostrategic exigencies and connectivity needs, the EU sees commercial mass market opportunities. It’s easy to imagine rising use cases when looking to mobile and fixed broadband, and cloud-based services. However, thanks to the European Quantum Communications Infrastructure initiative (EuroQCI), IRIS² could also usher in the banking industry and other institutional users in need of quantum encryption data centers. The EuroQCI was forged to help secure Europe’s critical infrastructure and encryption systems against cyber threats, protecting smart energy grids, hospitals, governmental institutions, and data centers.
It is seen that IRIS² will reinforce the competitiveness of EU industries. This is by integrating European New Space companies to produce novel technologies, applications and services, inspiring standards with European credentials.
“IRIS² is poised to present some distinct advantages over other global constellations,” says European Commission spokesperson Sonya Gospodinova. “In terms of industrial policy, it embodies a wider industrial paradigm shift of bringing together industrial sectors of affinity that were previously working in silos, such as space, digital, automotive, security and defense. As such, its scope can only benefit from a wider and edge technological excellence, and larger number of potential use cases.”
While the industrial pattern leans heavily on inputs and final services by the entire European New Space industrial ecosystem, in programmatic terms, IRIS² reflects a successful symbiotic culture of public and private sector investment. This combines the best of both worlds: funding certainty, predictability, agility, performance and accountability.
“IRIS² is the New Space moment where the European space ecosystem of SMEs, mid-caps and startups can excel, not in their traditional role of subcontractors, but as full service providers,” says Gospodinova.
The European Commission's objective is that 30 percent of subcontracts on the project go to new entrants, startups and SMEs. The ongoing procurement process includes obligatory subcontracting to new entrants, SMEs and startups, as well as specific requirements allowing startups and SMEs to deliver their own services to end users. The by-products of such participation are expected to stimulate innovation, increase efficiency and widen the use of disruptive technologies and innovative business models.
Of course, this still leaves significant room for established players, many of which are leading an open consortium to bid on this multi-billion-euro project. Comprising satellite operator and manufacturing heavy hitters, this SpaceRISE consortium is governed by Airbus Defence and Space, Eutelsat, Hispasat, SES and Thales Alenia Space. This consortium layer is backed by a core team layer comprising Deutsche Telekom, OHB, Orange, Hisdesat, Telespazio, and Thales.
Challenges & Lessons
While it’s important that the European Commission opens opportunities to big and small business, there is the question of feasibility. “To be awarded the tender, the company must have a minimum turnover of 500 million euros ($545.87 million), which is out of reach for many new companies,” says Maxime Puteaux, principal advisor at Euroconsult.
The inclusion of new entrants and small business in the IRIS² program is likely due to lessons learned from Europe’s two other flagships, Galileo and Copernicus, says Puteaux. Initially, Galileo was to be conducted as a public-private partnership. However, market maturity was void and industry was reluctant to bear the risks of concept which did not exist in Europe – they were only managed elsewhere for defense purposes and made available as a public service.
“Everyone has learned that high risks and high CapEx do not mix well with new business. Hence, IRIS² is to combine both public and private investors, and focus on government/defense demand while looking at other socio-economic benefits,” says Puteaux.
Copernicus demonstrated that European industry could expand in another application and provide high-quality data for free, enabling new services. Discussions about a third generation partly provided by smallsats and/or from emerging companies/SMEs is also reflected in the requirements of having small business included in the IRIS² program, he adds.
For the established space companies and their hundreds of reputed space engineers, there will be many opportunities both in terms of technology and business development, adds a spokesperson from the SpaceRISE consortium. This two-fold benefit would be extended to the startups, SMEs and mid-cap companies that do manage to play a role in the IRIS² program.
“We can imagine that some startups, SMEs or mid-cap companies could leverage the IRIS² capabilities to have their own payloads hosted on the constellation. This could allow for the provision of additional communication and non-communication services,” says SpaceRISE.
A new, large-scale LEO constellation is subject to comparison with Starlink, which is focused on consumer broadband and mobile connectivity. It has pitched its government-facing version, Starshield, however, it takes a consumer-first approach. In contrast, IRIS² focuses first on government demand and delivery of governmental services. These two opposite approaches could still meet in the middle, says Puteaux.
“Eventually, both Starlink and IRIS² may address similar commercial markets, such as consumer broadband, as commercial vendors will be able to offer some capacity in the market. But we are just not there yet,” says Puteaux.
The IRIS² program’s primary applications are predominantly in the domains of surveillance to secure the territory’s borders and seas, crisis management to support humanitarian efforts and aid, and protection of key infrastructures for external actions, such as civil protection, maritime emergencies, and secure communications for EU embassies.
Beyond the development of worldwide high-speed broadband and seamless connectivity, the commercial applications of the IRIS² system would include satellite trunking for B2B services, satellite access for transportation, and cloud-based services. While increasing cohesion across EU Member States, it will allow connectivity over geographical areas of strategic interest outside of the Union.
The technologies that will be used to ensure the security of IRIS² services cannot be disclosed at this stage. However, the European Commission notes that the integration of the latest innovations in the domains of satellite communication and cybersecurity is key for this ambitious project.
Looking to the SpaceRISE consortium and the layer of companies behind it, the group intends to leverage its expertise and capabilities to create this ~170 multi-orbit state-of-the-art satellite constellation. The most recent 5G non-terrestrial network (NTN) standards and associated technologies will be used, but the system needs to be interoperable with the terrestrial ecosystem. It is expected to feature optical intersatellite links, software-defined payloads and quantum key distribution (QKD), and meet strong requirements towards sustainability.
IRIS² is to be a Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) system that will still be supported by satellites in higher orbits. Being NGSO, its global coverage provides lower latency while its QKD provides end-to-end security.
“Integrating innovative technologies, derived from both established space industry players with proven technology, as well as the disruptive New Space ecosystem, it will also offer scalability capacities for future needs, thanks to a multi-orbital approach,” says the SpaceRISE spokesperson.
The satellite communications landscape is well punctuated by significant innovation and disruption, both subsequent to the ongoing industry evolution. Joining forces, especially with competitors in the marketplace, often helps to raise the bar of capabilities. And this is what SpaceRISE consortium, a culmination of numerous European market rivals willing to work together, aims to achieve. As the parts of this collaboration increase, so does the sum become greater, notes SpaceRISE.
“We believe that we can bring innovation to the next level by being inclusive towards start-ups, SMEs and mid-caps,” says its spokesperson.
“Satellite communications are fundamental and increasingly vital for key areas, such as efficient government communication, command and control, surveillance operations, safety and crisis management. To support these needs, the satellite communications landscape has been innovating and evolving, thanks to Strategic Network Optimization (SNO) players that are part of SpaceRISE,” says its spokesperson.
SNOs added to the combined expertise and capabilities will help afford IRIS² the benefits of the network as a service, additional layers of security to satellite communications, as well as flexibility.
“We are embracing the New Space environment, including to provide NGSO solutions with low latency and global coverage, coupled with the secure and controllable capabilities the consortium can bring to the table,” says SpaceRISE.
The size and complexity of IRIS², the sense of urgency introduced by the European Commission, the co-investment and the integration of new space companies – when combined, these pose significant challenges for the government and industry. “However, IRIS² also requires a leap of faith from everyone as well as a push to rethink the way and speed that space projects are conducted in Europe,” says Euroconsult’s Puteaux. VS
Editor's note: The article was updated to clarify the targeted scope for small business participation.