Industry worried about regulatory backlash after unauthorized cubesat launch


WASHINGTON — The launch of several cubesats by an American company without authorization from a federal agency has the rest of the industry worried of a potential regulatory and public relations backlash.

IEEE Spectrum first reported March 10 that Swarm Technologies, a Silicon Valley-based startup operating in stealth mode, flew four picosatellites as secondary payloads on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in January. The SpaceBee satellites were identified in materials by the Indian space agency at the time as “two-way satellite communications and data relay” satellites, but did not identify the owner. Each SpaceBee was one-quarter the size of a single-unit cubesat.

Swarm Technologies applied for an experimental authorization with the Federal Communications Committee to communicate with the spacecraft. However, on Dec. 12, one month before the launch, the FCC dismissed the request.

“The applicant proposes to deploy and operate 4 spacecraft that are smaller than 10 cm in one of their three dimensions,” wrote Anthony Serafini, chief of the Experimental Licensing Branch, in a letter to Sara Spangelo of Swarm Technologies dismissing the authorization. That size, he said, made them too small to reliably track even with the addition of Ku-band radar reflectors on the spacecraft.

“In the absence of tracking at the same level as available for objects of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm, and in the event of a conjunction with an operational spacecraft, the ability of operational spacecraft to reliably assess the need for and plan effective collision avoidance maneuvers will be reduced or eliminated,” he wrote.

Despite the rejected application, Swarm went ahead with the launch. The company has not commented on why it launched the SpaceBee spacecraft without FCC licensing, and Spangelo did not respond to an email requesting comment on the situation March 12.

Swarm has not disclosed its plans for those SpaceBee satellites or the company in general. The company’s website says only it offers “the world’s smallest two-way communication satellites” but offers no other details about the company.

The company received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award from the National Science Foundation in 2017. The $220,463 award is intended to support research on “the creation of a low-cost satellite network for Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices,” according to a description of the award on the federal SBIR website. “The proposed global communications network is orders of magnitude lower cost relative to existing options, and provides coverage at any location on the Earth.”

The grant covered the design and test of ground nodes for the proposed system, but the proposal noted the development of a “very small satellite design for swarm networking [that] includes making space more accessible and promotes the use of smaller spacecraft resources for more complex missions.”

The SpaceBee satellites were among those manifested on the PSLV launch by Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based company that provides secondary payload services. Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, confirmed in an interview at the Satellite 2018 conference here March 13 that Spaceflight provided launch services for Swarm Technologies.

“The FCC is looking into the matter. It’s a matter for them to deal with,” he said. He declined to go into specific details about the issue, citing the ongoing review of the incident by the FCC.

Blake said the company always stressed that the responsibility for getting FCC or other regulatory approvals for satellites rested with the developers of those satellites, and not with the launch provider. “I always assumed that people wouldn’t launch something if they couldn’t” get those approvals, he said. “I thought that would be sort of a self-regulation function.”

While it’s not clear why Swarm launched its satellites without approval, others in the industry were dismayed they did so, due to both the orbital debris concerns as well as the perception that the company might be thumbing its nose at the government.

“I’m very angry about that case,” said Nobu Okada, founder and chief executive of Astroscale, a Singapore-based company developing technologies to deorbit defunct satellites and other orbital debris.

Speaking the MIT New Space Age conference March 11 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he said he recalled a university in Singapore seeking to launch a half-unit cubesat but was rejected by regulators because it was too small to effectively track. Swarm’s SpaceBee satellites, he noted, are even smaller.

“The leaders of the company should know. They’re smart enough” to know this would be a problem, he said.

Some smallsat developers might not be aware of all the regulatory issues. “You have some new players that aren’t as familiar with some of those processes,” said Elizabeth Driscoll, chief operating officer of GomSpace North America, during a panel discussion at Satellite 2018 March 13. Her company, a subsidiary of Danish smallsat developer GomSpace, was establishing the ability to help new customers deal with regulatory issues.

An alternative explanation, others said, is that Swarm was aware of, and simply chose to ignore, the rules. “This news is particularly troubling,” said Katherine Monson, business development director in the U.S. for Norwegian ground station operator KSAT, at the MIT conference. “Any time someone breaks the rules, we’re going to get more rules.”

She said that the development of entrepreneurial space companies has benefitted from regulatory support from agencies like the FCC. “We have had really great support from the FCC,” she said. “We’re lucky in this country that the FCC cares about NewSpace and entrepreneurs, and was willing to be flexible.”

“We’re not incentivizing that type of support when folks actively disobey regulations that are in place,” she said. “‘Move fast and break things’ is an awesome Silicon Valley mantra, but that doesn’t work very well in hardware and certainly should not apply to any type of interaction with government regulators.”

Blake said that, in light of this incident, Spaceflight will do more to check that its customers have the appropriate licenses from the FCC or other agencies. “There’s room for improvement on our side,” he said. “We did a lot already, but obviously we found something that wasn’t perfect, so we’ll fix it.”