Stung By Unauthorised Launches

Image courtesy of ESA
Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist’s impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown

Unauthorised satellite launches caught our eye this week. According to reports the US firm Swarm Technologies Inc. launched four satellites in January without the permission of the US satellite regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

All satellite launches require a licence from the relevant national regulator; we’ve previously written about these requirements for UK firms and those in the US are no less strict. Swarm originally applied for a licence for the launch of four picosatellites in April 2017. These tiny two-way communication satellites were developed to act as relays for the transmission of data and are known as SpaceBEE’s as they use Basic Electronic Elements (BEE).

The FCC application can be seen here on their website, as can the fact that the licence was denied on 12th December 2017. According to Mark Harris of IEEE Spectrum, who originally broke this story, the application was denied because the size of the picosatellites was below the required threshold to be routinely tracked by the Space Surveillance Network.

Despite this denial, one month later on the 12 January 2018, there were four SpaceBEE’s picosatellites aboard the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) PSLV-XL rocket ride share launch – which we wrote about at the time – and they were sent into near-polar Sun Synchronous Low Earth Orbit at an altitude of approximately 580 km. The launch is confirmed by Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which lists the four SpaceBEE’s as currently been in orbit. The fact that Swarm apparently launched without authorisation is worrying, but it also raises concerns about ride-share rocket launches in terms of what checks are undertaken before satellites are put into space.

Swarm Technologies Inc., a Californian based company founded by Sara Spangelo and Benjamin Longmier, made a second application to the FCC on the 8th January 2018 for the launch of four SpaceBEE’s , but this is listed as being set aside on the 5th February. Update: The FCC announced on the 20th December that it has penalised Swarm $900,000 for the unauthorised launches and it has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC at least 45 days before any launch and within 5 days of a signing a launch agreement.

Now the SpaceBEE’s are in orbit, there isn’t a lot we can do. Whilst, a lot of work and money are currently going into space debris removal systems there isn’t a solution. So we’ll just have to let the SpaceBEE’s have their natural lifecycle – which could be as short as the six month to two year mission life or as long as the suggested ten year battery life. Whenever they reach end-of-life they will burn up in the atmosphere as they fall back toward Earth.

The number of objects in space is significantly increasing due to cubesats, nanosats and picosats, and 2017 saw 50% more launches than any other year in history and this is only likely to increase. The potential danger of orbiting satellites hitting each other is described by the Kessler syndrome, popularised by the film Gravity, where it’s suggested that when there are enough objects in LEO’s a collision could set off a chain reaction which could cause further collisions, with the potential to block off of LEO as there would be no free space to launch objects.

Questions need to be answered about what exactly has happened in this case, as we can’t have commercial organisations ignoring regulations. Whilst Swarm’s two way communication satellites appear relatively benign, who knows what the next unauthorised launch might be?

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