The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may be shirking its responsibility when it comes to net neutrality, but it’s still hard at work regulating commercial satellite launches. The agency has started an investigation of a California startup for launching four small satellites without proper authorization. If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.
You’re probably wondering how we’ve gone this long without an unauthorized satellite launch. Until recently, it was just very difficult and expensive to reach orbit, and anyone attempting to do so without approval would have been stopped. Now, a company can develop small CubeSats on the cheap and pay less than $ 100,000 for space on a rocket. That appears to be the situation with Menlo Park-based Swarm Technologies. The company launched its first four satellites in January aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (see above).
The satellites, known as SpaceBEE 1-4, were successfully deployed by the rocket. Its main payload was an Indian mapping satellite, but it also carried smaller satellites for Planetary Resources, Canadian telecom company Telesat, and more. That’s the same launch TeamIndus was unable to afford, leading to the end of the Google Lunar X Prize.
Earlier this month, the FCC sent a letter to Swarm Technologies revoking authorization for a follow-up launch. The letter says this was in response to Swarm Technologies’ “apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites.” The FCC is investigating the situation, and Swarm may lose its FCC license and be unable to test its communication technology.
Swarm Technologies is still in “stealth” mode, so we don’t have all the details on its communication technology. The firm was founded by former NASA and Google researcher Sara Spangelo with the aim of supporting the so-called internet of things (IoT). As more of these devices come online, they’ll need to communicate with other devices and services over the internet, but not all areas are wired for reliable internet access. Swarm would provide solar-powered ground stations with low-power RF transmitters connecting IoT devices. The ground stations could beam data up to a SpaceBEE satellite that in turn sent data to ground stations connected to the internet.
Here’s the problem: Swarm wants to use very small satellites. Its designs are 10cm across and just 2.8cm tall. You basically get four satellites in a single 1U launch payload. That’s cheaper, but it’s also almost impossible to track such small satellites. The FCC expressed concern that these objects could collide with other satellites and spacecraft, so Swarm offered to cover the satellites with radar-reflective material and install GPS trackers. The FCC wasn’t convinced, but Swarm apparently went ahead with the launch anyway.
Without FCC support, Swarm Technologies is basically in a holding pattern. Its upcoming launch was supposed to use larger 1U satellites that are easier to track, but it may never get a chance to try them out.