Europe is studying final offers on the launch of a new satellite network. The project considers an investment of 6.55 billion dollars for the launch of nearly 170 satellites. The initiative is designed to support the communications of European Union governments and to confront the growing influence of private networks such as Starlink, owned by Elon Musk.
The new constellation of satellites called IRIS2 – Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite – received the go-ahead from European authorities at the end of 2022. This Friday, the European Space Agency said it was already seeking final offers for develop the system.
For now, the only application for the main IRIS² contract was submitted by a consortium formed by Airbus, Hispasat and SES, Eutelsat and Thales Alenia Space. The implementation of the satellite constellation is planned in a phased manner, starting in 2024 and achieving full operational capacity in 2027.
The European Commission has explained that there is a mismatch between government needs and the solutions available in the region regarding satellite communications services. According to a statement published in February, Europe wants to seek a “safe, reliable and diverse” system and not depend on “third countries.”
Europe’s new satellite network against the influence of Elon Musk
The war in Ukraine made clear the central argument of Europe’s concern. The Starlink satellite network, a subsidiary of the aerospace company SpaceX, has been the backbone of Ukrainian communications during much of the war with Russia. And it has allowed Elon Musk to exercise a privileged position in the conflict.
In September it emerged that Musk had cut off Starlink’s satellite internet service to Ukrainian underwater drones. He did it unilaterally, just as they launched an attack on the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.
Musk’s biography published by Walter Isaacson tells how senior Ukrainian officials begged the billionaire to restore service. He also confirms that the also owner of X (Twitter) has held high-level talks with Russian and US officials during the crisis.
SpaceX has provided millions of dollars in satellite terminals to Ukrainians. And last month, it struck a deal with the Israeli government to bring its influence to the Gaza Strip. Israel described the agreement as “vital” for the fight against Hamas.
The risk of becoming obsolete
The reach of the Starlink satellite system is impressive: it already has more than 4,800 satellites in low Earth orbit. It has the capacity to operate in remote areas and already offers satellite internet to more than one million users in nearly 33 countries. Elon Musk’s goal, according to the authorizations that his company has requested, is to have more than 30,000 satellites in orbit.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, It also plans to launch more than 3,000 satellites in the coming years to offer broadband satellite internet connection. It already launched a couple of prototypes this year, within the framework of the Kuiper Project.
Europe is trying to catch up, but its satellite constellation risks becoming obsolete, even before its launch. «For all the promise of IRIS², it is missing a crucial component: artificial intelligence»highlight Denis Mercier, former head of the French air force, and Marc Fontaine, former Airbus executive, in an article published in Political last week.
When the program was originally launched, artificial intelligence was still considered a somewhat futuristic technology, experts say. Two or three years later, it is ready to be implemented practically everywhere. Artificial intelligence will be key to guarantee the operation, accuracy and security of the European satellite system, point out Mercier and Fontaine.
Mercier and Fonaine are linked to the German defense artificial intelligence company Helsing, which specializes in offering software. “Will the EU and its contractors be able to adapt the program?” they wonder. A spokesperson for the European Commission told Reuters which was already acting on the matter to consider the integration of artificial intelligence. The big question, however, is whether the bureaucracy will be able to keep up with the current need.