As it turns out, if the U.S. Federal Communications Commission asks you not to do something, you should probably not do that thing—particularly when it comes to launching to unapproved satellites into orbit.
This is the lesson currently faced by Swarm Technologies, a startup being fined $US900,000 ($1,269,679) by the FCC for launching four unauthorised satellites into orbit in January. The FCC said the unapproved launch and operation of the company’s SpaceBEEs—teeny, tiny experimental satellites—occurred a month after the agency denied its application for deployment.
What’s more, an investigation into operations by Swarm—which only copped to its unprecedented misdeed after the FCC caught on—also turned up “several unauthorised weather balloon-to-ground station tests and unauthorised tests of its satellite and ground station equipment.”
“Unauthorised deployment and operation of satellites risks satellite collisions and radio frequency interference, threatening critical commercial and government satellite operations,” the FCC said Thursday. “To settle this matter, Swarm Technologies admits that it engaged in these unlawful acts, will implement a five-year compliance plan, and will pay a $US900,000 ($1,269,679) civil penalty.”
The satellites launched in January with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Quartz reported in March that the FCC raised concerns about the size of the satellites, which the agency said were “below the size threshold at which detection by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) can be considered routine.”
“We accept the decision of the FCC as reflected in its consent decree and appreciate the FCC’s ongoing support for Swarm’s mission,” Swarm co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo told Gizmodo in a statement by email. “With the recent FCC authorised launch of three new Swarm satellites into low Earth orbit on the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, we move one step closer to enabling low-cost, space-based connectivity anywhere in the world.”
In August, the Spangelo, an alum of Google X, heralded the company’s achievements on Medium in a blog post that pointed to Swarm’s goal of a “future constellation of 100 satellites [that] will solve the problem of low-cost connectivity at a global scale far faster than any other provider, and at a fraction of the price.” Spangelo wrote on Medium again last week that the company had deployed three more satellites on the SpaceX SSO-A on Dec. 3, noting that those three were given the green light by the FCC.
To Swarm’s credit, the FCC said this week that the company hasn’t engaged in any more shady behaviour since the agency launched its investigation. But thanks to its bold deployment of illegal satellites in January, the company now has to deal with a fat fine and additional oversight by the FCC.