ESA gets the job of building Europe's secure satcomms network

IRIS2 oversight deal signed as constellation’s schedule slips, and Ariane 6 hits another snag

The European Space Agency has signed up to build and launch the European Union's Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite constellation.

The project, known as IRIS2, has been on the books since 2022, when the European Union found €2.4 billion (£2.1bn, $2.55bn) to fund the effort aimed at giving the bloc's members secure space-based comms capabilities and freeing them from reliance on other nations' infrastructure.

In July 2023 European commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager described IRIS2 as an effort to "deliver our safe internet from space."

"As cyber and hybrid threats are multiplying, it will ensure secure and high-speed communication for civilian and defence use, relying on disruptive technologies like quantum encryption and 5G," she added.

Which sounds great – except for the fact that Europe hadn't yet found anyone to build it.

On Thursday the European Space Agency (ESA) named itself as having signed a twelve-year agreement under which it "will work with space companies in the EU to develop and validate in orbit the Iris2 constellation, on behalf of the European Commission."

The European Commission has previously described its "ambition" for initial services to come online in 2024, and full operational capacity in 2027.

Both deadlines appear unlikely.

It's not hard to see one reason why: the ESA currently lacks a working heavy launch vehicle, as its Ariane 5 flew its last mission in July 2023.

Its successor, Ariane 6, was recently subjected to a hot firing test of its main stage.

Preparation for its next test is not going well. On Thursday the ESA revealed "an anomaly was detected affecting the hydraulic group of the thrust vector control system." Work is under way to fix that ahead of a test that must take place before October 3.

If Ariane 6 isn't ready on time, Arianespace's Vega launchers may be another option if the IRIS2 sats can be kept under about 2,200kg apiece.

Europe also has obvious alternative candidates to design, build and launch IRIS2 – Airbus and Thales both have relevant expertise and are European operations. ®

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