During the March 30 webcast of a Falcon 9 launch, video of the ascent was abruptly cut off at the nine minute mark, with SpaceX officials saying it did so to fall in line with government restrictions. Weird, right? What's even weirder is that an obscure, decades-old law is now suddenly being enforced. So what gives?
The March 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 Iridium satellites onboard. Photo: SpaceX
We've been able to watch webcasts of SpaceX launches for years, admiring the rockets' POV as they roar through our planet's upper atmosphere. Late last month, however, as the private space company was working to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites to low-Earth orbit, the video transmission suddenly went black.
"Due to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage of the second stage just prior to engine shutdown," explained SpaceX engineer Michael Hammersley during the webcast. "We're working with NOAA to address these restrictions in order to hopefully be able to bring you live views from orbit in the future."
As reported in SpaceNews, these restrictions are a reference to a 1992 ruling outlined in the National and Commercial Space Program Act, which requires all private space companies who want to broadcast images and video collected from space to get a licence. For reasons that still aren't perfectly clear, NOAA decided to enforce this ruling for the March 30 Falcon 9 launch, telling SpaceX that the cameras on the rocket's second stage, which SpaceX uses for engineering purposes, qualify as a "remote sensing space system", thus requiring the company to procure a provisional licence (as an aside, there was no restriction on the recent supply mission for NASA, as government missions are exempt from this ruling). In light of the incident, NOAA issued a statement that's so brief we can share it with you in its entirety:
The National and Commercial Space Program Act requires a commercial remote sensing licence for companies having the capacity to take an image of Earth while on orbit. Now that launch companies are putting video cameras on stage 2 rockets that reach an on-orbit status, all such launches will be held to the requirements of the law and its conditions. SpaceX applied and received a licence from NOAA that included conditions on their capability to live-stream from space. Conditions on Earth imaging to protect national security are common to all licenses for launches with on-orbit capabilities.
As noted, SpaceX has been broadcasting images from space for years without the benefit of a licence, and without NOAA giving it a hard time. So what's changed?
As reported in SpacePolicyOnline, Tahara Dawkins, director of NOAA's Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, SpaceX advised NOAA that it was unaware that licenses were required until it was contacted by NOAA. SpaceX quickly scrambled to apply for the application just four days before the Iridium launch. Normally, NOAA needs about 120 days to process such a request, so it's no surprise SpaceX wasn't granted the allowance given such short notice. When it processes a licence request, NOAA has to check on any potential security risks posed by the launch.
Which is actually really weird when you consider how poor the video quality is during liftoff, with the rocket and its smoke trail obscuring our view of Earth. Seriously, how much of a threat to national security could these videos actually pose? And which national security interest, exactly, is NOAA looking to protect? Gizmodo asked NOAA these exact questions, but we have not received a response at time of writing.
If this story sounds odd, you aren't alone. The industry experts we spoke to said the situation is pretty messed up, blaming the episode on government bureaucracy and what they believe is now a pathetically outdated piece of legislation.
"It's not reasonable. It's bureaucratic," Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Gizmodo. "I gather they passed a law saying Earth imaging had to get licensed without defining a minimum resolution that was exempt. Presumably, if I had a private version of the Voyager spacecraft taking an image of a one-pixel pale blue dot as seen from the outer Solar System that would also require a licence per this regulation. Which is stupid."
The original reason for licensing, he says, was for national security reasons in an era, during the 1990s, when private entities were starting to do high-resolution imaging that could compete with spy satellites. Today, satellites are regulated and restricted by the NOAA (among other government institutions, depending on the purpose of the satellite), also via the National and Commercial Space Programs Act, to protect national security. Also, there are potential privacy reasons for restricting high-res imaging.
"But there is no good reason for restricting imaging from space with ground resolution of 100 meters or worse, and the Falcon 9 camera is probably 10 kilometers or worse," said McDowell. "Of course during the first minutes the resolution is high because the rocket is still low, but it's not in space yet so presumably the space remote sensing regulations don't apply - although the United States government refuses to define space properly, so it may not be easy to tell."
McDowell suspects that NOAA enforced the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, in the past, calling it "a classic case of wasteful and burdensome government regulation".
Gunter Krebs, a physicist, spaceflight historian, and editor of Gunter's Space Page, agrees with McDowell, saying, "This is part of the usual bureaucracy." As to why it's being enforced now, he can only speculate.
"Apparently it was not enforced, although the law apparently, if taken literally, always required this, as it does not differentiate for images from orbit with the purpose of observing the Earth or just for engineering purposes," Krebs told Gizmodo.
You may remember that, as a publicity stunt, SpaceX propelled a red Tesla, driven by a dummy in a spacesuit named Starman with the words 'DON'T PANIC' written on the control panel, into space using its Falcon Heavy rocket. That car is now a permanent advertisement on the NASA HORIZONS directory of solar system bodies.
Like others, Krebs suspects that the recent publicity afforded to SpaceX during the launch of the Tesla Roadster into space - which the company broadcast for hours without licence - may have had something to do with it. At the same time, he doesn't believe that security issues are involved, as rocket cameras are "hardly usable" for such purposes. Krebs speculates that someone at NOAA likely figured the regulations apply to rocket cameras. Ultimately, however, he believes the government agency is suddenly enforcing a law that's no longer up to date.
"At the time the law was written, there was no reason to differentiate, as it basically was only applicable to Earth-observation satellites. Occasional rocket cameras existed, but were more an exception than a rule, and were mostly on government or NASA missions, which are exempt from this regulation," said Krebs. "Now, small digital cameras have changed this - it has become easy to fit a camera on a rocket or a small satellite."
Krebs said that NOAA needs to deal with this situation, mostly because cameras on space vehicles are starting to become common. His hope is that the US government will exempt launch providers from this sort of licensing.
"However, bureaucracy is usually slow to adapt to new situations, so we have likely to experience one or another livestream outage due to licence issues," he said.