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30th Jan 2023

Europe's response to Musk's Starlink set for 2024 launch

  • Josep Borrell: 'I do not want to use the word "battlefield" but, yes, space will become a kind of battlefield: at least, a place where competition and confrontation will take place.' (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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Europe's response to Elon Musk's Starlink broadband internet system, currently used by Ukraine in its war against Russia, is to deliver its first services sometime next year.

"By 2024, we are certain that the first services will be delivered," a senior European Commission official told reporters on Tuesday (24 January).

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Also known as the Iris2 [ie squared] satellite constellation, the full rollout is not expected until 2027.

But for issues dealing with security and Europe's future hopes of no longer having to rely on others to get into the space, means the sense of urgency among decision-makings is seen as a boost for the wider European industry.

"We are now putting a lot of energy in in order to get this third flagship [Iris2] off the ground," said Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Aschbacher said the ESA had obtained some €644m to help develop the technology needed for the project. The entire project is backed by €2.4bn from the EU budget and is set to be voted on by the European Parliament next month.

Among other things, Iris2 will also be used for border surveillance, crisis management and secure communications for EU embassies.

But it will also be competing with Tesla magnate Musk, whose Starlink aims to have some 42,000 satellites in orbit.

Aside from the US competition, the European space industry is also seeking more autonomy in light of Russia's war with Ukraine.

"This war was a wake-up call. It was a wake-up call for all of us: not just for Ukraine, not just for the Europeans, [but also] for the international community and international security — and specifically in terms of space," said the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

"I do not want to use the word "battlefield" but, yes, space will become a kind of battlefield: at least, a place where competition and confrontation will take place," he said.

With the exception of the International Space Station, the ESA no longer cooperates with Russia's Roscosmos. The two were working on big projects, including plans to send a rover to Mars to explore for life. ESA also stopped launching Russian Soyuz rockets from its Kourou space port in French Guiana.

Life on Jupiter's moons

But the ESA is pressing ahead with other missions. This includes looking for life on the icy moons of Jupiter. One of Jupiter's moons, Europa, is thought to have an ocean that is some 100km in depth.

A six-tonne spacecraft called Juice will make a series of fly-bys of the moons Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.

With a launch date set for April, the spacecraft will take 8.5 years to reach the moons, then make some 35 fly-bys, before landing on Ganymede in late 2034.

A second major mission also set for launch a few months later, called Euclid, aims to map the geometry of the universe.

"These are two major missions for all of our scientists in terms of understanding our solar system," said Carole Mundell, ESA director of science.

"So for me origins is a big theme for 2023," she said.

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