Monday, March 12, 2018

Silicon Valley Company Co-owned and Run by a Canadian has Launched Four "Unauthorized" & "Dangerous" Pico-sats

         By Henry Stewart

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has accused Silicon Valley, CA based Swarm Technologies, a communications start-up co-founded by four expatriates, including Canadian born CEO Sara Spangelo, with launching four "unauthorized" and "dangerous" experimental satellites into orbit in January 2018, shortly after the company had been denied an FCC launch licence.

Not to fear. It's unlikely anyone will end up in jail over this. With a bit of luck, it might even help define and develop some needed new legislation in this area.

Swarm Technologies CEO Spangelo's April 24th, 2017 astronaut candidate profile on the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) website. Spangelo applied, but was not accepted, to be a Canadian astronaut during Canada's fourth astronaut recruitment campaign in 2016-2017. Graphic and photo c/o CSA.

As outlined in the March 9th, 2018 IEEE Spectrum post, "FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites," the FCC never approved the June 12th, 2018 launch of the tiny, Swarm built SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 pico-satellites on the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket which blasted off from India’s eastern coast that day.

The pico-sats (built to a 0.25U cubesat form factor design) are considered extremely small and very difficult to track.

As outlined on the Gunter's Space Page listing for the SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4, are the "world’s smallest two-way communications satellites" and are designed "to serve as a cost-effective low-data rate Internet of Things (IoT) network connectivity solution for remote and mobile sensors."

According to Gunter:
...the tiny satellites have very small radar cross section, which might complicate the tracking. 
Therefore they featured a GPS device in each satellite that would broadcast its position on request. Also the four smallest faces of the satellites are covered with an experimental passive radar reflector developed by the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, which according to the FCC application would increase the satellites radar profile by a factor of 10.
Last Wednesday, the FCC sent Swarm a letter revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission with four larger microsats, based on the much larger 1U cubesat form factor, and expected to launch next month.

A pending application for a large market trial of Swarm’s system with two Fortune 100 companies could also be in jeopardy.

The March 7th, 2018 e-mail from Anthony Serafini, the chief of the FCC's Experimental Licensing Branch to Swarm employees postponing the second test of four larger swarm satellites in order to "permit assessment of the applicant's apparent unauthorized launch." The original rejection December 7th, 2017 rejection letter from Serafini, is available online at E-mails c/o IEEE. 

As outlined in the March 10th, 2018 The Verge post, "The FCC says a space startup launched four tiny satellites into orbit without permission," Swarm’s launch seems to have been set up by Seattle, WA based Spaceflight Launch Services, a company which helps satellite operators find ride-shares to space for their vehicles. 

Spaceflight told IEEE Spectrum that it “has never knowingly launched a customer who has been denied an FCC license,” and felt that it was the responsibility of the customer "to secure all FCC licenses.”

An FCC license is meant to grant companies use of the radio frequency spectrum, according to the Verge article. However, the FCC: allowed "to consider how a satellite will add to the space debris problem when issuing these licenses," (as per the August 31, 2006 National Space Policy). In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has partial authority on this too when it issues licenses for commercial rockets. 
The agencies were given this authority mostly because they’ve been doing licensing for such a long time — and there was no one else to do it.

Of course, no one is going to end up in jail over this. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) responsibilities in this area often overlap with the FCC responsibilities and there are also great gaps in the current legal coverage.

The Trump administration has proposed a way to fix this, through the creation of a “one-stop shop for space commerce” at the US Department of Commerce, which would come up with regulations to oversee operations in space through its Office of Space Commerce

Time to send in the space lawyers. Here's hoping that they're not just a bunch of clowns.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer

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