Eagle-1 signing
SES CEO Steve Collar (seated, left) and ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher sign the contract for the Eagle-1 spacecraft at the International Astronautical Congress Sept. 22. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

PARIS — A technology demonstration satellite for which SES will lead the development could be a prototype of a constellation by the satellite operator providing quantum-encrypted communications.

The European Space Agency and SES formally signed the contact for Eagle-1 during a ceremony at the International Astronautical Congress here. SES will lead a consortium of 20 companies to build and operate the smallsat, scheduled for launch in 2024 for a three-year mission.

The main purpose of Eagle-1 is to test long-distance quantum key distribution (QKD), a core technology for quantum encryption. Space offers a means of carrying out QKD using laser communications over longer distances than what is possible with terrestrial systems.

“Eagle-1 is a major building block of a major new European quantum key system. It’s the first satellite quantum cryptography system for European cybersecurity,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher at the signing event. “It’s also a major step towards a secure and scalable European quantum communications infrastructure.”

The spacecraft, weighing about 300 kilograms, will be built by Italian company Sitael, with Tesat providing the optical communications terminals. The spacecraft will operate in a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, making a few passes a day over European ground stations that will be sufficient for testing, said Alberto Rubio, ESA project manager. The launch will be on a European vehicle, he said, as part of a contract that will be announced in the near future.

The cost of the program, including the satellite and ground systems, is about 130 million euros ($130 million), said Elodie Viau, ESA director of telecommunications. Eight ESA member states — Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland — are contributing to the project, along with support from the European Commission.

The technologies demonstrated on Eagle-1 could be incorporated into the European Commission’s planned secure connectivity satellite system as part of the European Quantum Communication Initiative, or EuroQCI, program. “EuroQCI is a European Union initiative to build, develop and deploy this pan-European quantum secure communications network,” said Gilles Lequeux of the European Commission. “This is why we see this Eagle-1 as a key step and for which we contribute financially.”

Steve Collar, chief executive of SES, said his company is involved in Eagle-1 because of the potential for future commercial systems separate from the E.U. effort. “We think that there is commercialization potential of this system, and we will start that commercialization with Eagle-1,” he said. “If that looks good, and we think that there’s business there, that should lead to a small constellation of satellites that will deliver these services on a global basis.”

“It’s a very important project in and of itself, but I think it has broader implications and fits well other programs and initiatives that are ongoing, either within SES, within ESA or within the Commission,” he added.

Eagle-1 is not the only QKD satellite project in Europe or involving ESA. The agency is working with Arqit, based in the United Kingdom, on quantum encryption technologies for that company’s planned satellite system.

The biggest programmatic difference between the Eagle-1 project and Arqit’s QKDSat is Eagle-1’s ties to EuroQCI. “In the Arqit project the are some non-E.U. member states also involved, and therefore the European Commission is not involved in the Arqit program,” said Viau. The U.K. is no longer a part of the European Union.

Eagle-1 was not the only quantum communications project announced during the conference. On Sept. 19, Thales Alenia Space announced a memorandum of understanding with Singapore-based SpeQtral to conduct tests involving the SpeQtral-1 satellite and ground equipment developed by Thales Alenia. The satellite is slated for launch in 2024 with the tests taking place by 2025.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...