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Europe wants its own satellite megaconstellation to compete with SpaceX

Planning is underway for a European constellation that will provide internet connectivity from low-Earth orbit similar to SpaceX's controversial Starlink megaconstellation.

A group of Europe's major space and telecommunications players will bid for a proposed satellite constellation that could compete with SpaceX's Starlink system.

Companies including Airbus Defense and Space, Eutelsat, SES, and Thales Alenia Space announced that they have formed a partnership to respond to the European Commission's call for assistance in creating a future European satellite constellation.

Announced in late 2022, the Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity, and Security by Satellite (IRIS²) constellation will provide the European Union with internet connectivity from low-Earth orbit, a service similar to that offered by the ever-growing constellation of Starlink satellites operated by SpaceX.

Ars Technica reported(opens in new tab) this week that current EU estimates put the cost of Iris² at around $6.6 billion USD (6 billion Euro). The EU hopes the proposed constellation could be operational by 2027.

The European Union (EU) will provide $2.64 billion USD (2.4 billion Euros) to the project with additional funding set to come from the European Space Agency and private investment.

"IRIS² establishes space as a vector of our European autonomy, a vector of connectivity and a vector of resilience," Commissioner for Internal Market of the European Union Thierry Breton wrote in a statement last Nov. "It heightens Europe's role as a true space power. With a clear ambition and sense of direction."

The partnership also includes communications giants Deutsche Telekom, Hispasat, OHB, Orange, Hisdesat and Telespazio, who have said that the proposed megaconstellation will encourage startups in the European space sector to join the coalition. This meets the wishes of Breton, who has expressed his desire to broaden the European commercial space sector, hoping start-ups will build 30% of the Iris² infrastructure.

Named after the figure from Greek mythology said to be the messenger of the gods to humans, the Iris satellite constellation will provide connectivity for the whole of Europe, including areas currently not supplied by broadband Internet. In addition to this, Breton said in his Nov. 2022 statement that IRIS² will also provide connectivity to the whole of Africa, using the satellites' North-South orbits.

The system will integrate with Europe's existing satellite constellations including Galileo, the region's global satellite navigation system consisting of 24 spacecraft at Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and the twin Earth observation satellites Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-1B that comprise the Copernicus system. Breton said that the aim of this coordination between what he describes as Europe's "three pillars" in space is to reduce the risk of space congestion.

But, Iris² has a long way to go before it catches up with Starlink.

SpaceX launched the first two prototype satellites of its satellite constellation, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in February 2018. According to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, the megaconstellation currently boasts over 4,300 spacecraft, most of which are operational.

SpaceX has plans to eventually send as many as 12,000 satellites to low Earth orbit as part of the Starlink megaconstellation which currently supplies internet to 53 countries, with the company estimating in 2018 this would cost around $10 billion USD (9 billion Euro). This population of satellites could eventually swell to 42,000 units, however; SpaceX has applied for approval for another 30,000.

The Starlink system has been controversial since its inception with astronomers, in particular, fearing that its size and scale could interfere with observations of the stars and other celestial bodies made from Earth. Spaceflight safety experts now consider Starlink as the number one risk of collision hazards in Earth's orbit.

Other scientists fear that as disused Starlink satellites, which have a lifetime of around five years, are deorbited metal burning up in the atmosphere could cause unpredictable changes in Earth's climate.

Follow Pegasus Aerospace System on Twitter @systemaerospace. Follow us on Twitter @systemaerospace or Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @pegasusaerospace.

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