Editorial | Cubesats Need Coordination Too

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In the midst of the cubesat revolution that is opening up a whole new world of space applications to people and organizations of ordinary means comes a reminder from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is responsible for regulating and coordinating radiofrequency transmissions of all types: The existing rules requiring ITU member states to register their satellite systems do not discriminate based on size.

That means, in a nutshell, that cubesats and other nanosatellites, like their larger operational cousins, must be entered into the ITU-managed database of satellite frequencies and orbital slots. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Beijing, officials with the United Nations-affiliated ITU noted that cubesats draw on finite spectrum — however marginally — and have the potential to interfere with one another and with other systems. These officials urged ITU members to register cubesats and other microsatellites at least two years before launch.

It might be tempting to dismiss these ITU officials as overzealous bureaucrats bent on throwing a regulatory wet blanket over the cubesat party, especially given the organization’s spotty track record when it comes to enforcing its rules on traditional satellite services. But they are absolutely correct: Cubesat transmissions need to be properly coordinated for the good of everyone concerned.

The reason is simple and obvious: As the popularity of cubesats grows, so does the potential for interference. 

By all accounts, the cubesat business is booming. According to one expert assessment, some 60 cubesats are slated to be deployed over the next few months, beginning with more than 20 aboard a Minotaur rocket to be launched in mid-November from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. If these deployments are successful, the result will be a 50 percent increase in the number of cubesats orbiting Earth.

Not only are cubesats proliferating, their missions are becoming increasingly complex. Most cubesats today operate in a frequency band set aside for so-called amateur radio services, which can accommodate low-data-rate transmissions. But as applications become more bandwidth intensive, operators will increasingly be forced to seek out spectrum in other bands. Moreover, though cubesats today typically are allocated bandwidth on a secondary-user basis, meaning they have to work around primary users, there is no reason such missions could not be granted primary-user status.

In the United States, which is leading the surge in cubesat activity, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses all nongovernment satellites regardless of size and, once the license is issued, registers the associated frequencies with the ITU. This information is entered into the ITU’s Master International Frequency Register, the database used to coordinate the world’s myriad radiofrequency services.

For cubesats operating in the amateur bands, the FCC relies on the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) for frequency coordination — typically the operator must submit a coordination letter from the group with its license application. But the flood of activity threatens to overwhelm the small, volunteer organization: Of the cubesats slated to deploy through the remainder of the year, 40 are being coordinated by the IARU.  

The ITU requirements are hardly onerous. The cost to register a network is only $626 — these fees enable the ITU to maintain its master database — and operators have seven years from the time of registration to begin broadcasting in those frequencies to stay within the rules. 

The FCC and other state administrations that interface with the ITU should take steps to ensure that cubesat missions do not slip through the cracks as they juggle their ever-more-demanding workloads.  

Operators of cubesats and other small satellites, meanwhile, can help themselves by heeding the ITU’s request for ideas on how these systems should be handled given their unique attributes. The ITU would like to have these proposals in time for the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference, which sets international regulatory policy for frequency use.

The cubesat community and its government representatives should embrace ITU registry. Far from hindering the growth in cubesat applications — with the attendant scientific, educational and economic benefits — comprehensive ITU coordination will help ensure that this enterprise does not become a victim of its own success.