ITU Grapples with Small-satellite Regulatory Challenge

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PRAGUE — The astonishing increase in the number of small satellites being launched singly or by the dozen has caused friction between international regulators on the one side and, on the other, satellite developers and some national governments that look the other way instead of enforcing the rules, industry and regulatory officials said.

Officials at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that regulates orbital slots and radio frequencies, said they are girding for even more regulatory challenges as ostensibly well-financed companies planning low-orbiting constellations to offer global Internet access seek frequency coordination at the agency.

The nature of the small-satellite revolution — now featuring low-cost, quickly developed satellites whose owners would prefer to test in orbit and then throw away the hardware rather than test to perfection before a first launch — is enough to merit special regulatory consideration, some small-satellite owners say.

Planet Labs Flock 1 satellites
In 2012, the ITU asked its specialists to consider a separate regulatory regime dedicated to smallsats, like Planet Labs’ Flock 1 small satellites, anticipating how a flood of such spacecraft would stress the international regulatory regime. Credit: Planet Labs

Anticipating the stresses on the international regulatory regime caused by swarms of mainly low-orbit smallsats, the ITU in 2012 asked its specialists to consider a separate regulatory regime dedicated to these kinds of spacecraft.

The idea behind the initiative, which was backed recently by the U.S. Satellite Industry Association, was that current ITU rules were ill-fitting for owners of low-budget small satellites, especially since they often ride to orbit as piggyback passengers, with the main satellite payload driving the orbital injection point.

Three years later, those charged with examining such a new regulatory regime have thrown up their hands. Addressing the ITU Symposium and Workshop on Small Satellite Regulation here March 2-4, they said there is no workable definition of a small satellite that can be found.

By some definitions, they said, the International Space Station would be classified as a small satellite.

“We are really now not sure if any such special regulatory regime should be created,” said Yvon Henri, head of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau’s Space Service Department. “There is no definition of what a small satellite is and if I understand the results we have heard, maybe there will never be one.”

The ITU classifies satellites not so much by what they are, but what they do and what orbit they use. A 5-kilogram cubesat that broadcasts in a frequency to which it has no rights, and which is interfering with another satellite, is just as guilty of interference as a 6,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite in geostationary orbit infringing on a neighboring satellite’s frequencies.

And governments whose national regulatory regimes are used to register small satellites have just as much responsibility to deliver honest information to the ITU about these spacecraft — their planned orbits, whether they are commercial or experimental or amateur radio, and the radio frequencies to be used — as they do for larger satellites.

Fifty-eight years after Sputnik, what goes on in Earth orbit continues to exhibit Wild West characteristics, with nations telling occasionally egregious untruths to the ITU and getting away with it. Challenging the honesty of a sovereign nation is not in the ITU playbook.

Attila Matas ITU
Attila Matas, head of the ITU’s Space Publication and Regulation division, said nations sometimes use “dirty tricks” to pretend they are doing one thing in orbit but actually doing another. Credit: ITU

Attila Matas, head of the ITU’s Space Publication and Regulation division, called these “dirty tricks” that nations use to pretend they are doing one thing in orbit but actually doing another. As it has been in geostationary orbit, where a global multibillion-dollar annual business has developed, so it may be with smallsats.

Orbital debris hazards are never far from any discussion about swarms of small satellites. The general consensus is that, depending on its area-to-mass ratio and its specific shape, a satellite launched into an orbit of around 650 kilometers or lower with no propulsion system of its own will re-enter the atmosphere and be destroyed within 25 years.

A satellite launched into a higher orbit will remain there for centuries.

The leading spacefaring nations have adopted debris mitigation guidelines including one that says low-orbiting satellites should be equipped to re-enter within 25 years of the end of their mission, but international regulators have no charter to enforce this. It is routinely violated.

National regulatory agencies — the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the French space agency, CNES, are examples — sometimes insist on the 25-year rule as a condition to approving a launch or granting an operating license. But these remain exceptions, and even in the United States and France there are many waivers granted.

Henri and Matas told the symposium, where small-satellite owners and developers outnumbered regulators, that they wanted the sector to continue to thrive and to deliver on its promise of lowering the cost of providing space-based services.

“The new constellations will force geostationary satellite operators to lower their prices,” Henri said, referring to the several mega-constellation proposals that have arrived at the ITU in the past few months. But coordination of these constellations’ broadcast frequencies — in Ku- and Ka-band mainly — with pre-existing satellite systems “will be very complicated,” he said.

Responding to small-satellite owners’ concerns, they said the ITU does not need to know, at the time of an initial regulatory filing, the precise orbit of a small satellite given that it is the main payload that determines the orbit and the main payload and launch vehicle may not be known at the time of the filing, called Advance Publication of Information, or API.

The only metric that is inviolable when the first notice to the ITU is sent — the one that puts a satellite system in the queue and preserves its rights — is the frequency to be used. A proposed 1,000-satellite constellation at 1,200 kilometers in altitude that morphs into a 12-satellite network at 8,000 kilometers by the time the system is formally notified would not lose its API status so long as the broadcast frequencies have not changed, ITU officials said.

An expedited regulatory filing regime, they said, makes API filings relatively straightforward — if not always free of charge, depending on the satellite’s mission.

“We do not want to police you — we are not the police,” Matas said. “That is not our job. We want only to follow the rules to preserve the use of the resource.”