Published 18 September 2023

The EU wants to establish its own satellite network by 2027, with the aim of increasing the resilience of the European communications infrastructure and gaining technological sovereignty in space. Achieving this will require novel solutions.

It began with the internet in Ukraine. When the network collapsed under the force of Russian attacks, nationwide digital communication was restored with the help of a private satellite network. In Europe, relief over US entrepreneur Elon Musk quickly providing help via Starlink soon changed to unease: It seemed no European state was in a position to support Ukraine with this strategically important issue. The war highlighted two problems: How vulnerable terrestrial infrastructure is without backup from space, and how dependent Europe is on third parties when it comes to space technologies and satellite-supported communication.

The EU now wants to change this. By 2027, a constellation of up to 200 satellites should guarantee Europe’s sovereignty in space and, by extension, on the ground. IRIS² (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite) is a large-scale project aimed at not only securely networking critical infrastructures and creating resilient crisis management methods for governments, but also ensuring comprehensive broadband connectivity across Europe, especially in previously underserved regions. The EU wants to open this up to private technological initiatives: Apart from Starlink – which currently has about 4,000 satellites at an altitude of 500 to 550 kilometers, with 8,000 more to come – another supplier active in space is the British company OneWeb, which has 600 satellites. Amazon has announced news of another mega-constellation in the form of its Project Kuiper. China, too, is already planning a network numbered in the five digits.

“More and more countries want to increase their sovereignty by having their own satellite constellations,” observes Dr. Nadya Ben Bekhti-Winkel. As acting head of the Space technology area, part of the Fraunhofer AVIATION & SPACE alliance, she has joined 14 organizations from five countries in participating in a feasibility and concept study for a European broadband satellite constellation. The goal: to develop, analyze and evaluate new ideas and technologies for this purpose. This involves four key areas: First, robust, resilient communication between the satellites that combines radio signals with optical, laser-based technologies. Second, quantum encryption, to make it as tap-proof as possible.