Following the vote of the European Parliament on February 14, allocating an exceptional budget to the Iris2 constellation (Infrastructure for Resilience and Secure Interconnection by Satellite), we interviewed its rapporteur, French MEP Christophe Grudler, member of the Mouvement Démocrate and the Renew Europe group.
What happened on February 14?
With near unanimity (603 votes in favor, 39 abstentions and only 6 votes against), MEPs gathered in Strasbourg gave the green light for the allocation of a budget of €2.4 billion to the Iris2 sovereign, dual European constellation program, carried by Commissioner Thierry Breton, in charge of the internal market. It is the final agreement of the Parliament on a specially constituted budget, after a negotiation with the Council of the European Union, which will allow us to implement the constellation between 2024 and 2027, that is to say on the eve of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
How to release such a sum?
This is not " fresh " money, but existing budget items put together that make for a strong budget: there is the €220 M that was already present in the 2021-2017 MFF (which provided €1 074.3 M for all EU policies, from agriculture to the environment, including space), including for GovSatCom, funds from the Digital Europe Program, funding from the European Defense Fund (since it's dual), and aid to neighbors (since the program is also of interest for Africa). But there are also unused funds, which member states generally want to keep but which have been reallocated. In addition to the €2.4 billion, there is €642 million from the European Space Agency's optional program, which was voted on last November at the ministerial meeting. It now remains to gather the private part, since it is a Public-Private Partnership.
How much should be gathered on the private side and who would be ready to participate?
We had said at first that the project would cost between 5 and 6 M€, so we already have almost half. We are now waiting for all the European companies that have an interest in seeing this constellation come into being because they will be able to exploit its services - let's say around €2 billion of private contribution, the objective being obviously to gather as much money as possible, in order to build the most relevant program that is. And we can imagine that the next MFF will also be able to bring a new complement of money, but also that ESA will be able to increase its contribution, since each year its Member States can add credits to the optional programs (the starting objective during the last ministerial was 750 M€). Not to mention Italy, which has put in too little in my opinion for the moment and should invest more in this beautiful European project.
What is the hoped-for schedule?
The Commission has set up a schedule between now and 2027 that must be strictly adhered to, and whose next step, between March and November this year, is a kind of call for expressions of interest from industrialists and service providers, preferably gathered in consortia. This call could be segmented into several parts : satellite construction, quantum communications, broadband internet, other services... Then, as early as December, eligible candidates will be designated almost immediately, in accordance with a very precise regulation that guarantees the establishment of a sovereign constellation. Only companies that guarantee total security for sensitive data, and whose capital is essentially European, will be able to compete. The first tests and deployments will then start in 2024, with 2027 always as the final deadline.
Do you already have an idea of the industrialists who will respond?
It is obviously that the best wins. For my part, so that a maximum number of companies want to invest in space, I wanted the call for tenders to be segmented, so as not to have people who win on one side and people who lose on the other. The space world is too small to allow ourselves to be beaten up, and I want our space policy to be as consensual as possible. And this is what I managed to do in the Parliament with Iris2, which was far from being unanimous at the beginning: convince the countries that were not yet unanimous, and make sure that I had the support of all the political parties, but also of the Committee on Budgets, which gave its agreement on a very correct budget, on which we fought for the success that we know... And this is the future of space in Europe: we need to invest more in the coming years. But this will only be possible first of all if space is democratized and if it interests all European countries and not just a few - especially on the downstream, by promoting the development of applications by SMEs and startups from the data of our satellites in free access. And the second condition is that people get along ! In the end, we have to manage to make a distribution that satisfies everyone, while bringing innovation.
Have the objectives of the constellation evolved?
We are still on a constellation of connectivity, global and sovereign. Some have recently been able to realize its value, in light of the war in Ukraine, Mr. Musk's moods about the services of his Starlink satellites, and the fact that Europe does not yet have a solution. There has been this realization that secure government communications in the event of war, or safe from cyberattacks, is a major issue. And clearly, as with defense issues in general, this has made our task easier, and it has made the strategic autonomy criteria that we had defined at the outset even more relevant, both for the civilian and the military. But Iris2 will also be Internet for the general public, communications or telemedicine in white zones (in Europe but also in Africa, where many operators are interested), a substitute for the terrestrial network in case of emergency in Europe... Space must be an area in which Europe does not depend on anyone else, to have our destiny in our own hands. We made the mistake with Gafam twenty years ago, by letting others impose technologies on us, and today we depend on them for access to the Internet. It was the same debate with GPS and Galileo, but today the European system is the most accurate in the world, which just went from 50 to 20 cm three months ago !
Is an architecture already taking shape?
As a result of the objectives we have set in our texts, manufacturers will define solutions and a design that are not yet known. But, what we want today is to be virtuous and not to flood space with thousands of satellites, as the Chinese seem ready to do to compete with Elon Musk : Iris2, it will be 200 or 300 satellites, not more. Not all communications connections need a latency of a thousandth of a second, and we can combine the LEO orbit, which offers this short latency, with MEO and GEO, to distribute the flows. With GEO, you save hundreds or even thousands of LEO satellites! Moreover, when we see that some satellites can fall victim to cyber attacks, it is really in our interest to move to quantum and post-quantum cryptography, especially since we have technologies in Europe that we are not ashamed of, to make satellites talk to each other and to bring communications down to rarer but more secure ground segments. In addition, we wanted this constellation to be a world example in terms of sustainability: Iris2 will be the first to comply with environmental requirements, with efforts to limit CO2 emissions, space debris and light pollution as much as possible. These measures are the prelude to the next program, STM (Space Traffic Management), for the management of traffic in orbit, and where Europe will also set an example, by enacting in 2024 a number of rules, where all satellites will be identified to avoid collisions, like air, rail and sea traffic. With the hope that an organization initially European will then impose itself as a space WTO, not to talk about trade but traffic.
What have the consultations already launched last year with industrialists?
I was personally very happy to see that there was a huge participation, with a large number of files that were withdrawn. And beyond this real mark of interest, the consortia that responded confirmed to us that what we are asking for is possible it is possible to have secure content and it is possible to have LEO, MEO and GEO working together. But that again does not prejudge the choices that will be made in the end.
First launches as early as 2024, that seems very short...
Yes, there is some development to be done. But by 2024, there will already be elements available, and we'll be able to network GovSatCom services, which will be the first elements of the Iris2 constellation, without having a completely new satellite right away, which would come out of the factory in February 2024. And then the first tests of quantum satellites will be conducted, to validate the fact that the whole constellation uses this technology. In any case, symbolically, it will be important to have the first concrete elements when the current European Commission ends, next June...
On which launchers are you counting, knowing the delay of Ariane 6?
On this point, we are very firm and it is clearly written in the text : it is the European preference that applies. And the cases where it could have extra-European launches are the exceptional exception. Faced with the skepticism that I sense in your question, I recall the words of Abbé de Ravignan: " I will try " has never done anything, " I would like " has done great things, and " I want " has worked miracles. So, I want an Ariane 6 launch in 2023, and after that, if it's successful, I'll be rolling out all the production that's behind it. If the design is chosen for a 150 or 200 kg satellite, we can also use Vega C, even if we will be carrying fewer satellites. But objectively, we have reasons to hope that we will have the launcher in time, and that's how I see the future.
SpaceX could be the exceptional exception?
SpaceX is an innovative and important company in the space sector, there is no point in exacerbating things. So, in case of exceptional circumstances, why not call on this partner for an Iris2 launch? What is certain, however, is that SpaceX's Starlink solution is incompatible with our sovereign constellation, whether from a technical point of view (no combination possible with MEO and GEO orbits), an environmental point of view or a strategic point of view (with elements subject to Itar regulations or to control by the U.S. State Department). To be sovereign does not mean to wage war on others, it means that others respect us. We are partners of the United States, not vassals or suppletives.
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