UNIO plans first demonstration mission for 2024
The joint venture around Isar Aerospace, Mynaric, Reflex Aerospace and SES presents the milestones for the development of its own satellite network on its website. The first two satellites are to be launched as early as 2024, with the constellation to be built up from 2025.
Just a few years ago, global satellite constellations sounded as if space flight experts had run wild with fantasy. But at the latest since the regular and almost weekly launches of Starlink satellites, it has become clear that this fiction has become reality by now. And many other constellations are to follow, among others from Amazon (Project Kuiper), the European Commission (IRIS2) or also NewSpace startups OroraTech (FOREST). UNIO, for example, is also planning to set up its own constellation to enable secure communication via satellites in orbit. Already about a year ago, Walter Ballheimer, CEO of Reflex Aerospace, called the project "Europe's technological declaration of independence."
"Europe has everything it needs for an independent satellite network"
As UNIO additionally announced on LinkedIn, work is already underway on the demonstration mission. As recently as July 2022, a study had shown that the constellation could be successfully built. One of the main characteristics of this is the speed with which all of this is to be realized. Another is that in this project, companies are not only pursuing a common vision, but are also working together to achieve it.
Isar Aerospace – Launcher
Isar Aerospace, the manufacturer of a microlauncher that is to carry the satellites into orbit, is on board. The first flight of the Spectrum launcher is scheduled for 2023, and the payloads for the first two flights have already been determined. Isar Aerospace is considered the best-funded NewSpace startup in Europe.
Reflex Aerospace - Satellite manufacturing
At its sites in Berlin and Munich, Reflex Aerospace is working to revolutionize the manufacturing of satellites. As recently as early December 2022, the NewSpace startup was able to raise at least seven million euros in investments.
Mynaric – Laser-Communication
The Gilching-based company manufactures optical communication terminals and optical inter-satellite links (OISL). The first HAWK terminals are already in use with customers, and a CONDOR terminal is to be tested on the International Space Station ISS.
SES - Satellite operator
The Luxembourg company is the operator of the Astra satellite constellation and, according to its own information, supplies 1 billion people with TV signals. SES operates a fleet of more than 100 satellites in geostationary (35,786 km) and medium (2,000 to below 36,000 km) Earth orbit.
UNIO Milestones until 2025
Phase 1 - Development
Following a successful study, the first of the three phases is already running. The next two years will be used for simulation, building the hardware and software, and testing the complete end-to-end system. According to CTO and Systems Architect Arthur Afonso, Ka, Ku, Q and V bands will be used. In addition, he said, to ensure cost-effective production of the satellites, the production rate of the equipment must be higher than the production rate of the satellites.
Phase 2 - Demonstration Mission
A first demo mission with two satellites is to be launched in 2024. This will serve to prove the flawless cooperation of the launch vehicle, the satellites, the software and the laser communication system. A neuralgic point here is the connection between satellites and ground stations as well as the quantum-encrypted data transmission.
Phase 3 – Constellation
The final infrastructure is to be built from 2025 onward. The satellites' lifetime has been deliberately chosen to be short so that technical innovations can be put into orbit within a shorter period of time. However, in order not to cause any space debris as a result, Reflex Aerospace's satellites will be equipped with ADEO braking sails from HPS.
Competition at all levels and continents
The schedule published by UNIO seems to be very ambitious. Especially since the majority of the key components are still under development. But the international competition makes it all the more urgent. After all, SpaceX is way ahead in this space race and has built up a monopoly position in a short period of time.
Like no other, Elon Musk has mastered using them for marketing purposes. For example, he supplied Starlink terminals to Ukraine, where they were also used by the armed forces on the front lines. Thanks to the space-based Internet connection, data could be exchanged despite destroyed infrastructure. And in Iran, thanks to almost 100 activated Starlinks, it should be possible to circumvent state censorship of the Internet.
However, the Ukraine war also revealed the other side of the coin. The use of the Starlink terminals incurs costs that have to be paid. In the case of Ukraine, SpaceX first refused to bear these costs alone and asked the Pentagon to assume them. The latter refused and referred the matter to the British company that acquired the terminals. But it too refused to pay, and as a result some 1,400 terminals were shut down.
In addition to low data transmission rates, dependencies on third countries or foreign, private-sector companies could also become a bottleneck for broadband Internet anywhere in the world, autonomous vehicles and aircraft, networked industrial machines, or support for military or humanitarian missions. Europe is already lagging behind the United States and China. While the Chinese have built their network largely unobtrusively, in the U.S. SpaceX in particular is making no secret of its launches to build the Starlink constellation. But using existing, foreign infrastructures is not only an economic risk, it also poses dangers in terms of data security. Preventing this is one of UNIO's core concerns.