FCC accuses satellite startup of launching satellites without a license

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Four tiny nanosats built by a California startup that were placed in orbit by India’s PSLV rocket in January now appear to have been launched without an FCC license.

Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.

The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds. The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

The FCC denied the license because the nanosats were so small there is a fear they could become a space junk hazard. The FCC has now vacated an approved license for launching four more Swarm satellites on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket in April because, “The FCC believes that Swarm launched and is operating its original small satellites, despite having been forbidden to do so.”

If this story is true, it illustrates some incredibly stupid decisions by the people running Swarm. The FCC concerns here appear quite reasonable, and the company’s decision to ignore them now means that they might have gambled their entire company away. Moreover, this does harm to Rocket Lab, which has lost a customer.



  • eddie willers

    I’m reading conflicting reports on this. CNBC said there is NO authorizing authority. Quote from the article:

    The FCC’s denial of Swarm’s application due to space debris concerns raises further questions. Officially, no federal agency has this regulatory authority.

    And someone else stated that as far as launches goes, it is the FAA and not the FCC in charge.

    Be that as it may, these things are described as being about the size of an average router. Why such worry about such teeny tiny things in the vastness of space. Didn’t I just read that with the greatest minds, facilities and and unlimited budget (The Pentagon) they were unable to hit a moving ICMB specifically targeted? What chance is there of hitting a softball size object by random accident? To me it seems like throwing a bottle in the Atlantic and another in the Pacific and worrying they’d collide.

    Am I wrong?

  • Andrew_W

    The chances of one of these satellites being involved in a collusion is very low, but the more junk up there the higher the odds. But there’s a lot of hypocrisy in these requirements to gain approval given the fact that the approval doesn’t make the approved satellites any safer than the unapproved satellites

    Every satellite, space probe, and manned mission has the potential to produce space debris. A cascading Kessler syndrome becomes more likely as satellites in orbit increase in number. As of 2014, there were about 2,000 commercial and government satellites orbiting the earth.[4] It is estimated that there are 600,000 pieces of space junk ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm, and on average one satellite is destroyed each year.[4][5]

  • Mike Borgelt

    “But there’s a lot of hypocrisy in these requirements to gain approval given the fact that the approval doesn’t make the approved satellites any safer than the unapproved satellites”
    For once, I agree with Andrew_W.

  • Edward

    eddie willers asked: “Am I wrong?

    I, too, was surprised that the FCC is concerned with collisions, but the article talks about radar visibility, so I am inferring that the radar frequencies involved make it an FCC concern. Usually it is the FAA that licenses launches and the FCC that licenses the frequencies that satellites broadcast on and that the ground stations use in order to talk to the satellites.

    The FAA once delayed a Pegasus launch, because Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) had failed to change a post-launch procedure that would ensure the ullage in the propellant tanks did not rupture the tanks, as had happened on their previous launch. Once the procedure had been changed, the FAA granted the launch license.

    The worry about teeny tiny things in the vastness of space is that the risk of collision may be low, at any given time for any given piece, but the consequences are extremely bad. This is what the movie “Gravity” was all about (other than Sandra Bullock and George Clooney trying desperately to return from Earth orbit after a collision of space debris with their Space Shuttle).

    Even in the real, non-movie world, a chip of titanium-based paint actually collided with a Space Shuttle, leaving a deep gash and some paint-chip residue in one of the Shuttle’s windows. A larger piece of debris, such as one of these router sized satellites, would have been catastrophic for the Shuttle and its crew.

    Trying to hit an incoming ICBM is a one-time event, but an object in space crosses the plane of every other object twice each orbit. Not all objects are at the same altitude, but for those that are, there are two opportunities for collision on each orbit, and for low Earth orbit (LEO), that is once every 45-ish minutes. All that they need for a collision is to be at the same place at the same time. If they miss on this orbit, there are plenty of other opportunities for them to collide.

    Your analogy of two bottles in two different oceans is flawed. It is more like throwing tens of thousands of mines in an ocean’s shipping lanes and hoping none of them ever contact a ship.

    The most famous collision between two orbiting objects happened in 2009, when the active Iridium 33 satellite and the inactive (dead/abandoned) Cosmos-2251 satellite collided.
    until then, all accidental hypervelocity collisions happened between a satellite and a piece of space debris.

    The debris problem has other consequences, too. From the above Wikipedia article: “A small piece of Cosmos 2251 satellite debris safely passed by the International Space Station at 2:38 a.m. EDT, Saturday, March 24, 2012. As a precaution, the six crew members on board the orbiting complex took refuge inside the two docked Soyuz rendezvous spacecraft until the debris had passed.” Because of that collision, valuable work time was lost on the ISS.

    In the 1960s, everyone had that same “vastness of space” attitude and few, if any, worried about collisions. That changed rapidly as evidence of collisions started being seen.

    A lot of the early space debris came from launch vehicle upper stages that remained in orbit, bursting from overpressure as the ullage in their tanks evaporated. There have been other sources of debris, and abandoned, no longer active satellites are also considered debris.

    The reason that Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs chose 10 cm as the minimum size for CubeSats is so that they could be tracked by those who are tracking satellites and debris in Earth orbit, such as the US Air Force’s “Space Fence.”

    In order to reduce the amount of debris, a lot of LEO satellites are voluntarily put into orbits that will decay and reenter within 25 years of launch. geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites are routinely put into a higher “graveyard” orbit at the end of their lives.

  • Max

    Good comments.
    Edward, very professional as usual.
    Someone should tell the Chinese about the FCC rules.
    There was the Chinese satellite killer which put 800 scattered pieces of debris 4 inches and above, and thousands of smaller pieces (ball bearings?) throughout LEO. (500 Miles up)
    They estimate it will take 25 years for most of it to reenter earths atmosphere.

    We often forget how fragile our near Earth orbit is. Several times a year we get large astroids zooming past. All it would take is a glancing blow on the moon to create a debris field like the rings of Saturn which would affect all satellites and space travel for hundreds of years. The sooner we can develop a permanent presence with the infrastructure to capture and clean up near earth objects, the less we would be affected by these and other unforeseen problems in the future.
    I’ve heard stories of comets whose wake lit up the night sky with shooting stars…

  • eddie willers

    The reason that Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs chose 10 cm as the minimum size for CubeSats is so that they could be tracked by those who are tracking satellites and debris in Earth orbit, such as the US Air Force’s “Space Fence.”

    I read that the FCC didn’t approve their solution of making the smaller sats more radar visible. My guess is that they shot them up anyway so they can say, “See?”….or perhaps, “Our bad”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *