International ground stations tricky for smallsat operators to license

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Small satellite operators wanting to build ground stations in multiple nations to connect with their satellites are finding it complicated dealing with different sets of regulations.

Those regulations vary to the point that trying to establish a ground station in one country might create disagreements between different nations over how those stations are controlled, industry representatives said Feb. 6 at the SmallSat Symposium here.

For NOAA’s licensing office for remote sensing satellites, the increasing globalization of the space industry means more countries are starting to regulate the same sector.

“If you have ground stations in another country, that country then wants to take jurisdiction and regulate you, and those regulations can contradict the way that the United States regulates,” said Tahara Dawkins, director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office. “That’s a problem. That’s something that we are facing now with many of our companies with just something as simple as ground stations.”

Dawkins said the complication stems from differences in regulations over remote sensing satellite operators that are trying to abide by both U.S. regulations and the regulations of nations where they also have or want to have ground stations.

“If you want a ground station in Canada, they have jurisdiction over you per the way that their law is written,” she said. “Most countries do more of a transactional way of regulating, where we regulate the operational control of your system. That by itself brings in contradictions as far as who gets what imagery when there is a national disaster or an emergency… can we invoke shutter control if another country has jurisdiction? That’s something we are looking at now. We are working with about three to four other countries to figure out whose law takes precedence, and it’s a hard problem.”

Remote sensing satellites are typically in low-Earth orbit (LEO), and pass over the Earth several times a day, requiring ground stations in different locations to downlink sensor data like photos, as well as spacecraft health and information. Ground stations also upload new commands and software. Without inter-satellite links, operators need geographically dispersed ground stations to provide multiple opportunities to connect with their spacecraft.

For operators of LEO telecommunications satellites, similar challenges exist.

“Governments have an awful lot to say when they think they’ve got [a foreign ground station] in their backyard,” said Sasha Field, OneWeb’s deputy general counsel. “They want to know what’s going on. Do they have legal intercept access? Do you want the Russians and the Chinese to have legal intercept access to what? Whether or not you do, do you think the U.S. or the U.K. government want [them] to have that? Those are really complex, delicate discussions.”

Field said setting up ground stations around the world raises several questions, such as where they need to go and how you get the infrastructure there, in addition to learning regulatory requirements for access.

“Now imagine with a couple dozen earth stations for a constellation,” she said. “It’s just torture.”