Engineers monitor transmissions at a Communications System Control Centre run by Eutelsat, one of the members of a consortium bidding to develop IRIS². Credit: Adrien Daste / Eutelsat (2021)

TAMPA, Fla. — Europe’s largest space companies have banded together to bid for a role in the European Union’s proposed multi-orbit connectivity constellation.

The group is led by satellite operators Eutelsat, SES, and Hispasat; and satellite makers Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space.

Satellite operator Hisdesat, spaceflight services company Telespazio, aerospace giant Thales, small satellite manufacturing specialist OHB, and terrestrial telcos Deutsche Telekom and Orange are also part of the group.

The companies invited smaller businesses, including startups, to join what they described as an “open consortium” in a May 2 announcement that was light on details.

Europe issued a request for competing bids in March to develop IRIS², or Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite, after approving plans to fund 40% of the 6 billion euro ($6.6 billion) project. 

Commercial companies are expected to cover the rest of the cost for a constellation projected to provide global coverage by 2027. 

Under measures designed to encourage smaller businesses to participate in IRIS², successful bidders must subcontract out at least 30% of contracts above 10 million euros via a competitive tender process.

IRIS², which would complement satellites Europe has in geostationary orbit (GEO) and use quantum cryptography to protect communications, comes amid the growing dominance of U.S.-based Starlink’s broadband network in low Earth orbit (LEO) — and Chinese plans for a rival megaconstellation.

The newly created consortium of established space firms said their integrated team would seek to foster collaboration among all European space players.

The companies leading the consortium were part of an earlier study group the European Commission chose in 2020 to explore the feasibility of a sovereign constellation, which also included launch services provider Arianespace.

The competitive tender for IRIS² is open to companies bidding collectively, and initial proposals are due this summer.

However, the inclusion of Eutelsat in the group could cause headaches for European officials as the French GEO fleet operator seeks to merge this year with OneWeb, a LEO broadband operator partly owned by the British government.

The U.K. will continue to hold a share in OneWeb through priority voting rights if the deal passes regulatory scrutiny.

While Eutelsat has said OneWeb would be sufficiently ring-fenced within the enlarged group, a top European Union commissioner has previously warned of a potential conflict of interest post-Brexit.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...