Earlier this year, a Silicon Valley space company launched four of its first prototype communication satellites on an Indian rocket. Except that the FCC says the company was not authorized to send those spacecraft from the US government. UU., Reports IEEE Spectrum. Apparently it would be the first time that a private company in the US. UU It will launch satellites without a license in orbit, and these satellites could pose a danger to other objects in space.
According to reports, the four satellites belong to an incipient company called Swarm Technologies, which was started by the former engineer of Google JPL and NASA Sara Spangelo in 2016. The probes, named SpaceBees 1, 2, 3 and 4, have as The objective was to test the idea of Swarm for an Internet network based on the space of things, according to IEEE, and it was raised as part of a group of 31 satellites aboard an Indian polar satellite launch vehicle rocket (PSLV ) on January 12. At the time of launch, the Indian space agency did not name the operator of the four satellites.
Swarm's request was denied one month before launch in January
When the commercial companies of EE. UU If you want to send a satellite to orbit, you must request a license with the Federal Communications Commission to obtain access to the radio frequencies necessary to communicate with the satellite. The same goes for international companies that also want to do business with their spacecraft in the United States. Swarm Technologies initially sought government approval to launch these spacecraft. However, Swarm's request was denied one month before the January launch, according to a letter from Anthony Serafini, the head of the FCC's experimental licensing arm.
Denial turned around the size of SpaceBee satellites. The four satellites are small: smaller than the standard CubeSat, which measures approximately 4 inches (10 centimeters) in all three dimensions. The FCC was concerned that this would make it harder to locate the satellites with the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a series of ground-based radars operated by the US Army. UU That tracks all the space debris in orbit. "If they are hard to track … and you want to know in the future:" Will you hit my satellite? "- the answer may be wrong because we do not have a good orbit for them or just do not know where they are, "says Brian Weeden, a space expert with the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in space security, to The Verge.
Swarm Technologies proposed adding additional technology to its satellites to make them easier to track, such as radar reflectors that would improve the signals from the spacecraft to the surveillance network, but ultimately the FCC did not approve. Now, the FCC is investigating the situation and told the company that the department is suspending Swarm's request for a follow-up mission. Swarm aims to launch another batch of four satellites in a nearby flight of an Electron rocket, a new Rocket Lab rocket vehicle that takes off from New Zealand. But first, the FCC wants to evaluate the "impact of the apparent unauthorized launch of the applicant and the operation of four satellites," according to an email from Serafini.
"We are aware of the situation and we can confirm that we put aside their subsidy while we are investigating the matter."
"We are aware of the situation and we can confirm that we set aside their subsidy while we investigate the matter," the FCC told CNBC in a statement. In addition, Rocket Lab told CNBC it will not release anyone who does not have the proper licenses. We contact Swarm Technologies to get their comments and we will update if we receive a response.
The launch of Swarm with India seems to have been created by Spaceflight, based in Seattle, which helps satellite operators find spaces for their vehicles. Spaceflight told IEEE Spectrum that it "has never knowingly released a client who has been denied a license by the FCC." It is our customers' responsibility to insure all FCC licenses. "
Technically, a license from the FCC is intended to give companies the use of the radio frequency spectrum. However, the agency can consider how a satellite will add to the problem of space debris when issuing these licenses. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration also has partial authority when issuing licenses for commercial rockets. Agencies were given this authority mainly because they have been licensed for so long, and there was no one else to do it. "Part of obtaining your license is that you must comply with waste mitigation guidelines," says Weeden. "It's just because that was the path of least resistance to really implement." Giving a new agency a new regulatory authority over orbital waste would only have required changing the law. "
"Part of obtaining your license is that you must comply with the waste mitigation guidelines."
Although both the FCC and the FAA may consider space debris during the licensing process, the two agencies do not have full authority over what companies do in space. "At the moment, no US entity monitors activities in orbit," says Weeden. "Everything is done before the release of the license." In fact, this is a good illustration of a strange regulatory gap that has affected the space industry: there is no framework for how the government will monitor ambitious commercial missions in orbit.
The Trump administration has proposed a way to solve this. Officials at the most recent meeting of the National Space Council suggested creating a "one-stop shop for space commerce" at the Department of Commerce, which would create regulations to monitor operations in space.
Meanwhile, the repercussions for Swarm Technologies are still unclear. There are not many precedents for this, so it is uncertain if the government can do anything more than simply retain future licenses of the company.