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EU plans to spend billions on satellite fleet to rival Musk

EU plans to spend billions on satellite fleet to rival Musk

5 min. 15.02.2022 From our online archive
Commission also lays out plan to track space debris, which Luxembourg is working on
Swiss company ClearSpace is developing technology to deal with space debris
Swiss company ClearSpace is developing technology to deal with space debris
Photo credit: ClearSpace SA

The European Union has revealed its most detailed plans yet for a low-earth orbit satellite system worth billions of euros and aimed at delivering secure communications for the bloc. 

The project will cost an estimated €6 billion in both public and private money. The European Commission plans to spend €2.4 billion from its budget, while the rest would come from EU countries and industry. 

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has been pushing the project through the bloc for more than a year. He told French TV station BFM on Monday it’s essential that Europe has its own so-called “constellation” of satellites

He said the EU’s space plans will help boost the cybersecurity and resilience of EU countries, while ensuring better broadband access across Europe and Africa. 

“This is of central importance in terms of our strategic and technical sovereignty,” Breton said on Tuesday at a press conference.

The EU is entering a fierce global race to blanket the earth with rival low-earth orbit satellite coverage. These spacecraft are much closer to the planet than the traditional geostationary kind which beam TV and remote communications. 

This means they can connect users to faster broadband, although they don’t stay in orbit as long and many more need to be launched to achieve the same geographic coverage.

What’s more, fears of collisions are growing with the number and relative density of equipment in orbit.

The dominant player is Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, which has launched about 2,000 spacecraft for its Starlink system.

It aims to provide consumer broadband to remote regions, as well as defence and business applications, and has the advantage of using its own re-usable rockets. It has become one of the world’s most valuable private companies.

Rival billionaire, the founder Jeff Bezos, is also planning a similar system called Project Kuiper.

The EU’s closest equivalent may be a startup called OneWeb, which was unexpectedly bought out of bankruptcy by the UK government after the outbreak of Covid-19. 

The UK is now part of a consortium which includes the Indian conglomerate Bharti Global, SoftBank Group and French satellite operator Eutelsat. It’s put two thirds of an initial phase of 648 satellites into orbit. 

Crowded space

The European Commission also tabled a plan on Tuesday to ensure that space remains a safe place for the bloc’s space assets.

Canadian NorthStar Earth & Space, which tracks space debris, announced in December that it will set up its European HQ in Luxembourg this year
Canadian NorthStar Earth & Space, which tracks space debris, announced in December that it will set up its European HQ in Luxembourg this year

Due to a vast increase in the number of satellites in orbit over recent years, partly due to private initiatives in space, the safety of EU countries’ space assets are “at serious risk”, making space traffic management a “priority”, the Commission said in a statement.

“Space has become more crowded than ever, increasing the complexity and the risks related to space operations,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. “While space traffic management is a civilian endeavour, European security and defence depend on a safe, secure and autonomous access to space.”

The Commission’s plan includes developing technology to be able to identify and track spacecraft and space debris.

Luxembourg to venture into space traffic management

Researchers at the University of Luxembourg are currently working on the only  space debris removal project in the Grand Duchy, in partnership with Chinese satellite operator Spacety, through a partially state-funded project to remove out-of-date satellites belonging to the Chinese company. 

None of the 60 or so commercial space companies present in the Grand Duchy have so far ventured into the area of space debris removal or space traffic management. 

But this could all change when NorthStar Earth & Space sets up European headquarters in Luxembourg this year, one of the country's first companies to deal with space debris, a problem that experts say is increasingly threatening any hardware in space.

The Canada-based company, which is building satellites that can monitor space debris to avoid collisions in the cosmos, now plans to get staff on the ground in the Grand Duchy in the first three months of the year, CEO and founder Stewart Bain said at a press conference in December. However, NorthStar Earth & Space has not yet given any updates on this.

The company aims to recruit around five employees by the end of this year, including researchers to develop its products and staff to run the commercial side of the business.

Two venture capital firms, the Luxembourg Future Fund, and Canadian venture capital fund Telesystem Space are investing a joint total of €40 million in the company, the government said.

NorthStar Earth & Space first began discussions to set up a base in Luxembourg in July 2019. The Canada-based company told the Luxembourg Times last year that it would receive Luxembourg investments, as well as non-financial support from the government, such as helping to connect it to clients.

The company, which is still in its product development stage, has not yet secured any customers but is in discussion with around 12 public and private companies, Bain said. Most space debris removal companies are in the same position, aiming to secure clients while still developing their product.

There are already more than 330 million pieces of space debris in earth’s orbit, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), and some experts are comparing the issue with the equally daunting problem of global warming.

(Additional reporting by Kate Oglesby and Heledd Pritchard)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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