An unauthorized satellite launch in India threatens US regulatory reform in space

Space Business
Space Business

A brash satellite start-up could upend efforts to make space friendlier for private companies.

Swarm Technologies, a stealthy firm that hopes to provide space-based communications for the “internet of things,” launched four satellites they call “SpaceBees” on an Indian rocket in January. The only problem? Swarm launched their experimental satellites after the US satellite regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, refused permission for the SpaceBees to fly, as IEEE Spectrum first reported.

It is likely the first time a private organization has launched spacecraft without the explicit approval of any government. Now, the FCC has revoked Swarm’s latest application to operate four more satellites as it investigates the claims made by the company while applying for its original license. The episode reveals how increasingly capable private companies are rapidly outgrowing the patchwork of unsophisticated regulations for space technology.

“The fact that a company can do something like this, and number one, the government was not able to stop them, and number two, other governments were willing—the Indian government was willing to launch it—that says something about the lack of good, enforceable regulations, laws and treaty arrangements,” says Todd Harrison, a space technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Harrison has warned in the past about the destabilizing potential of the plunging cost in space access.

Slipping through the cracks

Activities in space are broadly regulated through treaties between national governments, who are obliged to ensure that spaceflight originating from their countries follows basic rules of cooperation and coordination. In the US, the FCC regulates satellite operators, mainly through governing the use of radio spectrum shared with terrestrial broadcasters, while the Federal Aviation Administration authorizes rocket launches.

In this case, Swarm, a US company, sought approval for its satellites to go into orbit, and the FCC denied it. Not because of concerns about radio interference; instead, the FCC was apprehensive that the unusually small satellites—about a quarter of the size of the popular 10 cm3 design used by many small satellites—presented a particularly high risk of collision because they could be difficult to detect with the radar currently used to track space debris in orbit. Even tiny pieces of debris can destroy expensive satellites, or put the lives of astronauts onboard the International Space Station at risk.

Despite the FCC denial, Swarm contracted with Spaceflight Industries, a company that brokers ridesharing deals for smaller satellite operators to launch their spacecraft in groups large enough to fill an orbital rocket, or for them to to find a spot on a launch with a single, large payload. Spaceflight connected Swarm to Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency, to purchase space on one of its rockets.

The satellites ultimately launched, but without regulatory approval—and it’s not clear yet who is to blame.

“Spaceflight brokered and integrated the four satellites onto a [Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle] that launched in January,” a company spokesperson told Quartz. “Spaceflight does not comment on matters between the FCC and applicants. Spacecraft providers are required to obtain all licenses necessary to operate, and communicate with, the spacecraft. Please know: Spaceflight would not knowingly launch a customer whose FCC license had been denied.” (Antrix and Swarm did not respond to requests from comment from Quartz.)

In its rejected FCC application from January, Swarm said that it had partnered with “two Fortune 100 companies” that are interested in using its technology. CEO Sara Spangelo is a former NASA and Google employee, while CFO Benjamin Longmier sold an aerospace company to Apple and co-founded Apollo Fusion, another space startup.

Can the system be fixed?

“It gets right into the seam of our regulations,” Harrison says of the incident, noting the gap between the FCC’s regulation of objects in space and the FAA’s regulation of their launches. It’s possible Swarm will argue that it had the approval of the Indian government to launch its satellites, but that wouldn’t give it permission to transmit data back and forth to its ground stations in the US. And, Harrison says, “if there is a collision [between SpaceBees and other spacecraft] it will be the responsibility of the Indian government,” which launched the spacecraft.

The US government is currently restructuring its approach to regulating space activities to make it easier for companies to obtain the permissions they need to do business in orbit, including an attempt to combine the various space regulatory functions in a single office under the Department of Commerce.

“While this has the potential to be messy, it is also shining a bright light on regulatory oversight and reforms, not just at the FCC, but FAA, Commerce, [the Department of Defense], and elsewhere,” says Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s engineering school and a former White House space adviser. “As the space economy continues to grow, it’s critical for the National Space Council to address these issues.”
In recent months, two experimental payloads launched by rocket-makers as publicity stunts, Rocket Lab’s “Humanity Star” and SpaceX’s Tesla roadster to Mars, have generated intense interest in private spaceflight, as well as criticism of companies acting on their own in space. Though the two stunts were both pre-approved by relevant regulators, they demonstrate that private companies can now match the capabilities of nations.

So far, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other new commercial space companies have played by government rules, even as they succeeded in quietly pushing to overhaul them. Swarm, rather than lobby for new rules or fight the FCC’s decision in court, just flew their satellites. Flagrant disregard for the current system—if Swarm or another company adopt a Travis-Kalanick-at-Uber approach to regulation—could lead lawmakers to demand a more onerous system of checks and balances.

A global problem

Cheaper access to space will become an international challenge. The question of which countries are responsible for which satellites is already sometimes a tricky one; satellites owned by one company in one country can be launched in another and provide service in a third. Swarm’s experience suggests that space companies will become increasingly adept at exploiting gaps in regulation.

“Does it allow companies to shop for a jurisdiction?” Harrison wonders of the current system. The situation might lead to race to the bottom akin to international financial regulations, where countries compete to offer the laxest regulation to major companies. It could also push space regulation in the opposite direction, toward further restrictions based on more coordinated international space cooperation.

Part of the problem is that national space agencies themselves aren’t always forthcoming about registering their own launches with the United Nations.

“In an ideal world, you would hope there would be a regime where you are required to announce at, or before, launch what you were putting in space,” Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics who tracks space activity closely, told Quartz in January. Last year, he published a paper (pdf) with Ram Jakhu at McGill University in Canada and Bhupendra Jasani at King’s College in the UK documenting “ambiguities in the requirements and poor feedback and quality control in the system have led to significant flaws in the registry which allow cover for the small number of deliberate abuses.”

They documented 17 unregistered satellites launched by major powers that appear to be deliberately omitted from international satellite registry, and another 71 omitted by accident. The authors urged stricter registration requirements and more publicly transparent efforts to verify what is actually launched by national space programs.

Yet this goes against what McDowell calls a “new trend in commercial secrecy.” Also in January, an experimental satellite owned by a private Canadian company and launched on a Chinese rocket was not acknowledged until a week afterward. The same Indian launch that carried the SpaceBees into space also flew a satellite known as “DemoSat-2” whose operator was not publicly named until more than a month after launch; it turned out to be an FCC-approved launch from Astranis, a startup funded with $18 million from Andreessen Horowitz.

“This hasn’t happened before, until this year,” McDowell told Quartz. “With maybe one or two exceptions, commercial satellite launches have all been acknowledged. And so this sort of, ‘oh, we’re not going to say who we are,’ feels like a sudden and new trend.”

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