The US Federal Communications Commission says Swarm Technologies - a communications startup run by Silicon Valley expats - launched four tiny internet satellites into space back in January. That's a problem because the FCC never greenlit the project, saying the experimental satellites are dangerous. If confirmed, it would mark the first known time in history that unauthorised satellites have been placed in space.
An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifting off from a launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. Photo: ISRO
The launch happened on what was otherwise a historic day. On 12 January 2018, the state-owned Indian Space Agency (ISRO) launched its 100th satellite, along with 30 others. But as Mark Harris reports at IEEE Spectrum, four of these 31 satellites probably shouldn't have been packed to the cargo hold of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
Prior to the launch, ISRO described the quartet as American-owned "two way satellite communications and data relay" devices, but with no operator identified. Spectrum has since learned that the four so-called SpaceBees are the property of Swarm Technologies, a company founded two years ago by Canadian aerospace engineer Sara Spangelo, a former Google employee, and Benjamin Longmier, a developer who sold his previous company to Apple. This five-employee startup (currently in stealth mode) is currently working on a system that will enable a space-based Internet of Things communication network, with the potential to hook up ships, trucks, cars, agricultural equipment, and anything else equipped with an IP address. The four SpaceBees currently in orbit represent the first of what the company hopes will be a larger constellation of tiny satellites, which together will be capable of delivering low cost internet to virtually any part of the globe.
"The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm's application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds," writes Harris at Spectrum. "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 unauthorised launch of commercial satellites." The FCC regulates commercial satellites in the US, and under some interpretations of existing laws, it has purview over American-owed satellites launched from other countries.
What Swarm has done is actually quite upsetting. That unscrupulous startups are tossing unsanctioned - and potentially dangerous - objects into space is so not cool. And it appears the FCC agrees.
Earlier this week, the communications commission withdrew its approval for a follow-up mission that was supposed to go up in April with an additional four satellites. Another application involving two undisclosed Fortune 100 companies is now also in doubt. Furthermore, the FCC is now investigating the incident, and Swarm could very well lose its launch privileges. As Harris put it, "If Swarm cannot convince the FCC [on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee], the startup could lose permission to build its revolutionary network before the wider world even knows the company exists."
Image: Swarm Technologies via IEEE Spectrum
The satellites are considered unsafe because of their diminutive size. Each SpaceBee measures a mere 10cm x 10cm x 2.8cm, which is about the size of a hardcover book, or one-quarter the size of a standard CubeSat. Georgia Institute of Technology satellite expert Marcus Holzinger told Spectrum that satellites of that size are difficult to track, so it's virtually impossible to know if its trajectory will set it on a course towards another object in orbit. And at those speeds, an impact with another object would be catastrophic to both.
Sadly, ensuring something like this doesn't happen again may be easier said than done.
"This emphasises the limitations of the existing licensing process," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an expert on artificial satellites, told Gizmodo. "Note that under some interpretations of existing law the US is the effective launching state for these satellites and so is responsible under international law for anything they do. This is because space law is all about the Launching State and doesn't care much about individual companies. Traditionally even military space launches have been, with few exceptions, more transparent than this."
McDowell says the development of mass small-satellite launches with intermediary companies sitting between the satellite owner and the rocket provider - all of which may be from different countries - are coupled with the emerging trend of commercial space companies being super secretive.
"The legal regime of outer space is meant to ensure transparency - originally for strategic reasons, to make sure we knew neither the US nor the USSR was storing nukes in orbit," said McDowell. "But this transparency has begun to crumble in the last few years thanks partly to these developments."
Last week, rocket startup Rocket Lab launched a 91cm-wide mirror ball into orbit. Called 'Humanity Star', it's supposed to remind us that we're all puny specks of dust living in the terrifying vastness of the Universe. Some astronomers have spoken out about the stunt, claiming the sparkly object will interfere with their work - one even compared the abusiveness of the act to sticking 'a big flashing strobe-light on a polar bear'. That's an overstatement, but the bigger problem is the precedent this otherwise useless satellite creates.
Space is crowded enough as it is, with all sorts of silly things being placed into orbit. And now mission controllers and astronauts will have to contend with at least four contraband, and potentially hazardous, satellites. Here's to hoping the FCC bites hard on Swarm Technologies, making them an example of how not to do business.
An email to Swarm Technologies's CEO was not immediately answered. The FCC also did not respond to an email sent after business hours.