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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.