IRIS²: Europe’s sovereign “Starlink” will be quantum

IRIS² is the name of the future sovereign constellation of the European Union. Objective: to propose an equivalent to Starlink, to guarantee Europe’s autonomy. Among its upcoming features: quantum cryptography.

Now it’s official: the European Union (EU) will soon have a third constellation of satellites. Her name ? IRIS², which stands for “Europe’s Resilience and Secure Interconnection Satellite Infrastructure”. It is about providing a new sovereign spatial structure, so as not to depend on foreign groups.

The formalization of IRIS² was made on November 17, 2022 by Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner responsible for defence, digital, space and industrial policy. It is, moreover, on this day that a tripartite agreement was concluded between the Commission, Parliament and the Council, which brings together the governments of the EU Member States.

IRIS², new sovereign constellation of the EU

The IRIS² project had already been underway for several months. At the beginning of the year, the same Thierry Breton referred to Brussels’ desire for Europe to acquire its own constellation of satellites to connect to the Internet, so as not to have to resort to Starlink – Elon Musk’s solution – and, more generally, any American or Chinese service provider.

Already at the time, the European Commissioner mentioned some characteristics of this future swarm: satellites of a few hundred to a few thousand units, deployment in low orbit, high-speed communications for the civil sector, a military and state component for even greater security, connections and even quantum communications 🇧🇷

IRIS² is not the only sovereign EU constellation. There is also Galileo and Copernicus. // Source: ESA

These specifics were recalled during Thierry Breton’s message. It is a matter of giving Internet access to the whole of Europe, namely in areas that currently do not have access to broadband — that is, in the most remote regions of the continent, such as in the mountains, but also in less densely populated areas .

The commissioner’s message also indicates the possibility of connecting all of Africa, counting “with the North-South orbits of the constellation”. A way of offering an alternative to the continent that is not American, not Chinese, not even Russian. On the other hand, it is not clear whether the EU’s overseas territories (New Caledonia, for example) will have access to it.

About the positioning of the satellites, Thierry Breton reports a ” multi-orbit constellation “, per ” reduce the risk of space congestion “. However, all devices must generally be within a few hundred kilometers of the Earth’s surface. Everything below the 2,000 km threshold is lumped into low Earth orbit.

And, as expected, IRIS² will be a constellation focused on government services, including defense applications “, he adds. These services and applications should, in particular, be able to benefit from the “ quantum cryptography — this is a new branch of cryptography that exploits the properties of quantum physics to work.

tamperproof communications

The use of quantum physics for the distribution of encryption keys aims to guarantee their confidentiality and integrity. In short, communications through this solution guarantee the inviolability of exchanges in all circumstances, reminds the European Space Agency as the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

Here, this encryption consists of transmitting randomly generated qubits. These qubits constitute the famous cryptographic keys, which are used to encrypt and decrypt messages. However, explains the CEA, “ to the extent that it is impossible to clone quantum information without destroying it, or to measure a quantum state without modifying it, an intruder reading the information would be immediately detected by the recipients of the message. 🇧🇷

These quantum cryptography features will include “ the latest communication technologies in this area, says Brussels, relying in particular on the European quantum communication infrastructure (EuroQCI – European Quantum Communication Infrastructure). This initiative, launched in June 2019, brings together the 27 EU countries.

The IRIS² project forms part of a secure connectivity program for a period from 2023 to 2027. According to Thierry Breton, an initial funding of 2.4 billion euros over five years – an amount that will be complemented by the European Space Agency and through of private investment. How much is not specified. The implementation of IRIS² is planned for the 2020s.

The Eagle-1 mission: a quantum test for a European satellite

In this field, a demonstration satellite, the EAGLE-1, should be put into orbit in 2024. It will then be the first space system for distributing quantum keys in the Old Continent. During three years, he will have to demonstrate the viability of the project, validate the technical guidelines and components and supply the teams with data for the development of EuroQCI and IRIS².

Source: Esa
Source: Esa

In the experiments with the EAGLE-1 several European member countries of the ESA are involved: Germany, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Italy and Switzerland. Communications with the satellite will be carried out with optical terminals deployed in Germany and the Netherlands.

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Current quantum computers, like Rigetti's, are still a long way from breaking encryption.  // Source: Rigetti

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