EU hopes new satellites can spot spy balloons, spacecraft

EU hopes new satellites can spot spy balloons, spacecraft

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A new multibillion euro EU satellite system could be used to identify and track spy balloons and rival spacecraft in the future, a top EU official said.

The European Parliament passed a crucial vote Tuesday backing the development of a secure communication satellite system that’ll rival Elon Musk’s Starlink. The program — dubbed the Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite, or IRIS² for short — is targeted at cutting out internet dead zones and allowing European governments, spy agencies and militaries to communicate securely.

But with some additions, it also promises to act as eyes in the sky against the kind of snooping balloons currently driving a diplomatic war between the United States and China.

“We want to integrate really a lot of new features and many services, including for military,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton of the plans for plugging additional technology onto IRIS² spacecraft, referencing “space-to-space surveillance” and tracking high-altitude spy balloons as possible additional functions.

“With this capacity we want to be able to monitor what’s happening around the constellation,” Breton told reporters in Strasbourg.

The French commissioner said the technology could also be used to track movement at high altitudes in European airspace. The alleged Chinese spy balloons — flying objects packed with surveillance equipment that the American government has spotted hovering above the U.S. and other regions in recent years — typically operate at altitudes of 20,000 meters, far above the flight paths of conventional commercial flights.

“You can spot the balloons much more easily from satellites … than from Earth,” said Christophe Grudler, a liberal French MEP running the IRIS² file from the Parliament. “One of the useful tasks will be engaging in surveillance, particularly for those balloons,” he said, adding it helps with Europe’s “space awareness.”

The final sign-off for the program from lawmakers comes as tensions are on the rise between major powers in space, and following allegations of satellite spying over recent years.

With €3.15 billion secured to get the IRIS² program moving, including from the European Defense Fund, Breton said he wanted to start procurement for the constellation next month, with first launches set to happen in 2024 and full service on the market as of 2027.

Lawmakers approved the plan with 603 votes in favor, 6 against and 39 abstentions.


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