An Indian PSLV launch in January carried a number of smallsat secondary payloads, including four SpaceBee satellites from Swarm that lacked authorization from the FCC. (credit: ISRO)
Suggestions for community response to an unauthorized commercial satellite launch
There is an old adage that bad news is released on Friday afternoons. While not a release intentionally relegated to Friday, the news that emerged near the end of the US workday on Friday, March 9th, 2018 that an American startup company had launched four satellites despite being denied the required Federal Communications Commission (FCC) experimental license certainly was not a positive development. It does, however, provide an occasion to step back and assess how to avoid the recurrence of incidents like this in the future.
Writing in IEEE Spectrum, Mark Harris reported the Swarm Technologies, a space startup based in California, had launched the four satellites (each approximately one-quarter the width of a 1U cubesat in size) on an Indian PSLV launch vehicle on January 12, 2018.1 The four SpaceBee satellites were technology demonstration platforms for Swarm’s planned space-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) service. The denial of the experimental license was based on concerns the satellites were too small to be effectively tracked by the US military’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which provides safety of flight information to other operators. Subsequent to the unlicensed launch, the FCC revoked another Swarm license for a planned upcoming launch on Rocket Lab’s Electron in April 2018. As of March 23, 2018, neither Swarm nor any of its known investors have commented on the situation.
While the lasting consequences of Swarm Technologies’ actions on its business and relationship with regulators is unclear, this incident raises a number of issues that go beyond this one firm and should be of concern to the entire commercial spaceflight industry. Swarm’s actions have put its ability to secure licenses in the future in doubt, threatening commitments that the firm has announced from unnamed Fortune 500 companies.2 While the firm may ultimately be able to restore the FCC’s confidence in it, there are surely uncomfortable conversations occurring between the firm and its investors, as lack of regard for regulatory compliance threatens business objectives.
That potential impact on Swarm’s business viability is a microcosm of the reputational risk that irresponsible actions such as this pose to the entire entrepreneurial space ecosystem. A number of other entrepreneurial space firms have spoken out against Swarm’s actions, while expressing concern that those actions might have negative impact on their business. For example, Katherine Monson, the US business development director for ground segment services provider KSAT, stated that historically the FCC has been very supportive of the space industry, and worries that “we’re not incentivizing that type of support when folks actively disobey regulations that are in place.”3
Swarm is but one of a wide range of emerging commercial companies seeking to access, use, and provide benefit from the space domain via a host of innovative technical approaches and business models. This innovative “space renaissance” is attracting expanding and novel capital sources, new customer types, and policy and regulatory support. The way to further leverage this support lies in incentivizing responsible behavior in space activities. The emerging entrepreneurial space ecosystem—and the support it enjoys—is fragile. Companies acting irresponsibly threatens that momentum: by giving investors pause to invest, regulators cause for action, and traditional competitors ammunition.
While a deliberate choice by Swarm was the core of this incident, that choice was made easier by a patchwork of overlapping gaps, challenges, and stakeholder roles that collectively enabled the unauthorized satellites to be launched. This highlights a number of steps and actions the broader community can take to help reduce the potential for future recurrence.
Industry agreement to consensus voluntary principles for responsible operations
While this was—according to best evidence available—the first unauthorized launch of a commercial satellite, every effort should be made to ensure it is the last such occurrence. It is in industry’s best interest to identify norms and principles of responsible behavior and to hold each other to those norms. There are already several efforts underway within the satellite operator community to develop consensus responsible operations principles. These efforts should proceed to conclusion with some urgency, and must consider effective implementation strategies.
Role of launch providers as gatekeepers
In a statement following the news, the CEO of the launch company contracted to provide Swarm’s next launch, Peter Beck of Rocket Lab, stated “Rocket Lab will not launch spacecraft that do not have the relevant regulatory approvals or licenses.”1 Beck’s statement shows that launch services providers find themselves in a role of a gatekeeper to space: ensuring that their customers have secured the relevant authorities prior to launch. The four Swarm SpaceBee satellites launched as secondary payloads on an Indian PSLV, with the launch opportunity brokered by Spaceflight Industries. It appears Spaceflight operated in good faith based on information provided to them by Swarm.
For its part, Spaceflight Industries appears to be willing to take steps towards improving processes. Quoted in SpaceNews, Spaceflight’s President, Curt Blake states that “I always assumed that people wouldn’t launch something if they couldn’t get those approvals.” He went on to say, “There’s room for improvement on our side. We did a lot already, but obviously we found something that wasn’t perfect, so we’ll fix it.”5 Launch operators should develop shared methods to verify compliance data provided to them by customers. For secondary payloads, they should also work with customers to increase flexibility in launch rebooking opportunities. This would help to ensure that pressure to meet launch opportunities does not incentivize satellite operators to short circuit the licensing process.
Improved SSA information sharing and satellite tracking aids
Swarm’s experimental license application for the SpaceBee launch was denied by the FCC under the agency’s authority to oversee space debris mitigation plans. In the letter to Swarm issuing the denial, the chief of the FCC’s Experimental Licensing Branch expressed concern that the satellites were too small for SSN to effectively track and provide collision avoidance information to other space operators. As a result, the FCC found that it “cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest.”6 Recognizing the small size of the satellites, Swarm had included technical aids (GPS transmitters and Ku-band radar reflectors) in the system to address tracking concerns. The FCC was concerned that these aids were unproven and insufficient, as the SSN currently does not have any tracking radars operating in Ku-band.
Swarm is not only entity working on satellites below 1U in size. Several other commercial and academic entities have expressed interest in developing and fielding picosats. The FCC’s concern in this regard, rooted in the agency’s obligation in protecting the public’s interest through a safe orbital operating domain, demonstrates need for joint industry/government efforts to demonstrate and validate satellite tracking aids for very small satellites. Furthermore, as government and commercial sensors come online that can track objects at this size, there will be need to address effective information sharing provisions for the growing number of tracked operators and objects. Indeed, since news of this incident broke, the CEO of one commercial space situational awareness (SSA) data provider, Dan Ceperley of LeoLabs, has stated that they are tracking the SpaceBee satellites: “We were automatically tracking them even before we knew they were special.”7
This incident also shows why it’s past time to move beyond relying on the legacy SSA capabilities of the US military for such an important global safety service. Outside studies have shown that the US military’s existing processes generate significant uncertainties in the orbital trajectories of small satellites, which lead to false positives in predictions of potential collisions.8 The US military is taking steps to address some of these shortcomings, but history has shown the upgrades always take far longer than can be achieved by private sector entities. Moreover, there is a clear need to break down the silo between the government agencies that have the data on activities in space and the agencies with licensing and oversight responsibilities. Creating better links between these authorities should be part of national space traffic management efforts.9
Further exchange between regulatory and operator communities
While evidence suggests that Swarm was aware of the regulatory requirement to obtain FCC authorization for the SpaceBee satellites, its failure to comply with the denied license indicates further need for education. As the operator community continues to grow and diversify, every effort must be made to ensure resources are provided to ensure that that community is aware of regulatory requirements, processes, and needs.
Government agencies in the US (and other countries) responsible for commercial space regulation should continue visible presence and participation in industry events and communities in order to provide those resources and build relationships. Efforts to facilitate informal information sharing between prospective satellite operators and regulatory entities should be encouraged and further developed. Improving information sharing links between the cubesat developers’ community and the policy and regulatory community was a recommendation that emerged from a Dialogue on Practices for CubeSat Post Mission Disposal that Secure World Foundation hosted at the 2017 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.10
Ongoing regulatory reform
Regulatory reform to enable the commercial space industry is an ongoing area of emphasis within the Trump Administration, through the National Space Council. While this incident pertained to an established area of space industry regulation (FCC licensing and space debris mitigation) and most of the emphasis is on enabling new applications, efforts are ongoing at the FCC to look at the efficacy of existing regulatory practices for smallsats and space debris mitigation. This work might include additional clarity in experimental vs other license types.
As part of regulatory reform efforts, the National Space Council has proposed consolidating many regulatory functions into the Department of Commerce, creating essentially a “one-stop shop” for many commercial space related license applications. This consolidation might include transferring space debris mitigation plan requirements (and oversight) from the FCC and NOAA to the Department of Commerce. Doing so might allow the FCC to focus on its core mission of spectrum management.
However, in implementing such a transfer of responsibility it is of critical importance that the Commerce office be provided with the appropriate amount of resources (both financial and human capital) to ensure that it can effectively perform the new mission. Robust communications and information sharing channels among Commerce, the FCC, and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation must also be established and maintained. Failing to take these actions would both create a bottleneck to companies in the processing of licenses and authorizations and threaten the ability to effectively provide space safety information. These efforts should proceed with a sense of urgency, to provide both industry and government with confidence in an effective regulatory framework that is capable of evolving in light of technical trends and advancements.
Swarm’s actions in this case, and the community response that has followed, demonstrate both the need for industry to act responsibly as it pushes new areas of innovation and the need for continued action in government to provide an effective and functional regulatory framework. In mitigating the potential for future instances of this nature, industry and government action on the topics suggested here can be mutually reinforcing in support of sustaining momentum in commercial space development.
Even as the complexity of the operating environment in space and those operating in it increases, the community has been well-served by a set of best practices and fundamental principles for operations that have collectively developed and followed throughout the space age. Resources such as the Handbook for New Actors in Space (produced by the Secure World Foundation) provide reference to this body of knowledge.11 To avoid future irresponsible actions such as this incident, the community would be well served to continue to share and reinforce the existing body of practice on responsible behavior.
- Mark Harris, “FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites,” March 9, 2018, IEEE Spectrum.
- Ibid at paragraph 4.
- Jeff Foust, “Industry worried about regulatory backlash after unauthorized cubesat launch,” March 13, 2018, SpaceNews
- Michael Sheetz, “Former Google Engineer’s Start-up Slammed by FCC for Unauthorized Satellite Launch,” March 9, 2018, CNBC.
- Federal Communications Commission, Letter to Swarm Technologies dated December 17, 2017.
- Dan Ceperley quoted by Debra Warner via Twitter.
- Jeff Foust, “The ups and downs of smallsat constellations,” June 22, 2015, The Space Review.
- Brian Weeden, “Muddling Through Space Traffic Management,” September 22, 2017, SpaceNews.
- Secure World Foundation, “Dialogue on Practices for CubeSat Post Mission Disposal Summary of Key Themes,” August 10, 2017
- Secure World Foundation, “Handbook for New Actors in Space,” February 2017.