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Startup fined $900k for launching illegal satellites, points to future space law challenges

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Swarm Technologies, Inc., a satellite startup aiming to make the planet ’s lowest-cost satellite community, was fined $900,000 by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for illegally launch and deploying four unauthorized satellites into orbit in January 2018 on a business Indian satellite launch vehicle. The tanks in question were Swarm’s SpaceBEE vehicles, and that quantify one quarter the size of a traditional CubeSat, a class of small satellites measuring 10 cm in height, width, and thickness. Back in December 2017, the FCC deemed the SpaceBEE size too little for the U.S. Air Force’s traditional technology to monitor with routine techniques and declined a permit, but the tanks were put into orbit regardless. With rocket and satellite launch startups proliferating as distance access becomes more affordable, the debate over ensuring security within this global arena will probably enlarge.

Swarm requested an experimental license from the FCC in April 2017, a first step for virtually any satellite operator to ensure compliance with current global space legislation, and their plan was to start in September 2017, even though that date was later postponed. Spaceflight Industries was next hired to connect Swarm with a launch supplier and make sure its integration with the rest of the rocket’s payload. After the FCC declined the permit in December 2017, Swarm employed for a new permit in January 2018 for tanks assembly CubeSat specifications, but the original SpaceBEEs were already loaded onto the contracted Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and then started on January 12, 2018.

When news of this SpaceBEE deployment broke, concerns over regulatory backlash disperse throughout the satellite neighborhood. The FCC issued an Enforcement Advisory on April 12, 2018 warning regarding consequences for communications companies failing to comply with licensing requirements, including a note to start suppliers on how launch activities may be affected if an unauthorized satellite payload has to be eliminated. In a decision released December 20, 2018, Swarm Technologies has been ordered to cover the fine and execute a five-year compliance program.

A depiction of Swarm’s SpaceBEE satellites, from their FCC license application. | Credit: Swarm Technologies/FCC
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Since the very first satellite was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, activities in area have been largely conducted by national governments and businesses related to them. On the other hand, the new area era is fast changing that environment, quickly opening the beyond-Earth domain to private citizens. Billionaires like Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Blue Origin, and Richard Branson of Virgin and Virgin Galactic have largely been the surface of private/commercial space industry in the last couple of years, but the technologies they’ve created are also ushering in a new wave of cheap access to space, as well as, new technologies that overlook ’t fit the traditional mold of “old space”.

The legal basis for present space legislation is the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, i.e., the “Outer Space Treaty”. Under this Treaty and subsequent treaties and legislation arising out of it, states, or countries, instead, are responsible for any space activities conducted with their own nationals, meaning that a regulatory process that has to be enforced. Where access to distance was once expensive and difficult, the considerably lowered threshold has brought into a field full of players prepared to take their chance at engaging in the coming space market and maybe, as noticed with Swarm Technologies, actually take some risks to arrive.

While the illegal launch of Swarm’s planes was captured rather rapidly (first by the community of amateur space trackers) and activity was taken to punish it, what’s to prevent countries in the future from lowering standards to attract personal customers? As mentioned in this FCC’s Enforcement Advisory, “Satellites approved by an government other than the United States do not require any FCC endorsement if Earth channel operations are only outside the United States. ” Pressure from the global community to comply with treaties will only work to the degree that 1) the penalties deter the profit potential from the sector; 2) the global community agrees the activity is actually harmful; and 3) the resistance to reforming regulations to permit the activity in question is deemed warranted. Innovation, especially out of Silicon Valley, has a history of violating rules to bring about considerable change; however, some would argue that distance isn’t the place for that approach.



The thrice-flown, Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket that put Swarm’s recent 3 satellites in orbit (all FCC approved): SpaceBEE-5, 6, and 7. | Credit: Pauline Acalin

The problem appears to be a very simple matter of integrity: Don’t launch objects into space that aren’t safe to Earth’s natives. But based on the FCC, Swarm’s proposed satellites were only “under the size threshold at which detection by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) can be considered routine. ” The licensing issue seemed to normally only be safety-related because of the satellites’ irregularity, maybe not from the shortage of real monitoring capacity, something that is only going to rise as more players enter the brand new distance arena.

Another factor worth consideration is that Swarm’s SpaceBEE satellites are in fact trackable using the exact same SSN network the FCC cited in its rejection of Swarm’s permit petition, and live tracking is continuing via an independent tracking service called LeoLabs. According to Dr. Sara Spangelo, among the co-founders of Swarm Technologies, the satellites are equipped with radar retro-reflector technology, something manufactured with a US-Navy study and development lab, making their radar signature as glowing as a CubeSat. The FCC has also allowed the company a temporary experimental authorization to test the previously-illegal satellites’ orbital and tracking data. Thus, the issue for the future is not so much whether the security concerns are valid, but whether preventative rules will be waived where newer technology can demonstrate their compliance beyond traditional standards.

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