Reports: NewSpace firm launched four satellites – without permission
With NewSpace companies garnering headlines by completing previously unthinkable feats, one could be forgiven for thinking that these forward-focused startups could do little wrong. Recent events have shown this same “can do” attitude can be pushed too far.
As noted, entities that were held back for decades have surged to the forefront of space efforts and proven they can do everything they said they can do, upending entire industries in the process.
However, there was an ever-present concern for what might happen should one of these startups throw caution to the wind and cut a corner in an effort to achieve their objectives. Many felt it was a matter of “when,” and not “if,” such an event would come to pass. Now, as NewSpace companies continue to leap forward, it seems as if that specter of concern has been realized.
On January 12, 2018, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifted off on a mission to deliver the indigenous Cartosat-2 Earth-observation satellite, along with 30 smaller co-passengers, to a Sun-synchronous orbit. Among the manifest were four satellites — SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 — attributed to an unnamed U.S.-based operator.
Though the operator was not disclosed, the micro satellites’ description closely matched that of hardware from California-based Swarm Technologies. The NewSpace company sought approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch the diminutive spacecraft aboard the PSLV, with its application outlining the parameters of the technology demonstration.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced the deployment of the primary and secondary payloads at the conclusion of the mission, indicating that Swarm’s four satellites were successfully delivered to orbit. However, there was one small problem — the FCC never approved Swarm’s request.
The satellites should have never left the ground.
Circling Earth, in orbits ranging from hundreds of miles (kilometers) high to thousands, are more than 21,000 objects larger than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in size. These objects include satellites — both operational and defunct — along with the detritus from crewed and uncrewed missions alike, dating back to the start of the Space Age in 1958.
These items circle Earth at more than 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) per second and are tracked by ground-based radar systems. Knowing where these objects are located is important. Indeed, the International Space Station (ISS) regularly has to adjust its orbit to avoid collisions, or even close-calls, with orbital debris. Though collisions between objects in orbit are rare, they do happen.
In February of 2009, two satellites collided 490 miles (790 kilometers) over Siberia. The victims — a telecommunications satellite from Iridium and Russia’s Kosmos 2251 military commsat — destroyed each other in the first-of-its-kind event, creating a globe-circling debris cloud.
According to an article on Aerospace.org:
“The Aerospace Debris Analysis Response Team (DART) was immediately tasked by the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center to assess the event and the potential for risk to other satellite missions. The DART analysis predicted approximately 200,000 1-centimeter debris objects resulting from the collision, with some 3273 being large enough (10 centimeters or greater) to be tracked and therefore added to the resident space object catalog. Such objects are considered large enough to cause the destruction of another object, including active satellites—adding to the likelihood of a space-asset destructive chain reaction, the so-called Kessler syndrome.”
Making matters worst, Swarm’s satellites are too small to be reliably tracked. Measuring in at 4 by 4 by 1.1 inches (10 by 10 by 2.8 centimeters), the spacecraft may not be able to be tracked by ground-based radar and can present a collision hazard as their orbits decay over their projected nine year lifetime.
For this reason, the FCC declined Swarm’s request, noting:
“In the absence of tracking at the same level as available for objects of 10cm 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. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest.”
At present, evidence suggests that Swarm allegedly ignored this and proceeded with their project without receiving approval. In fact, according to an article on IEEE.org, the FCC has revoked Swarm’s authorization for a future launch as it assesses the company’s apparent disregard for rules.
If investigations prove that Swarm Technologies did, in fact, launch these satellites without permission, it will mark the first-ever unauthorized commercial satellite launch.
While many cheer the benchmarks set by the NewSpace movement, this is a “first” that many hoped would never come to pass. Not only does it cast a shadow over the companies hoping to stake their claim to space-based operations, but it raises doubts on international launch providers’ ability, or desire, to comply with U.S. regulations.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.