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PSLV launch
India’s PSLV rocket lifts off in January, carrying controversial satellites into orbit. (ISRO Photo)

A stealthy California startup called Swarm Technologies is facing the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission after its super-miniaturized satellites were launched without proper authorization.

The flap was first reported last Friday in IEEE Spectrum.

It all started when Swarm Technologies developed a breed of networked communications satellites known as SpaceBEEs (Basic Electronic Elements). The satellites were unusually small: about 4 inches square and 1 inch thick, or roughly the size of a sandwich.

Four of the satellites, designed to be capable of handling two-way communications in orbit, were stacked for launch into the space taken up by a standard CubeSat unit (4 by 4 by 4 inches, or 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters).

SpaceBEE design
As initially designed, Swarm Technologies’ SpaceBEE satellites were each roughly the size of a sandwich. (Swarm Technologies Illustration via FCC)

The first four-pack of the experimental mini-satellites was included as a ride-along payload on an Indian PSLV rocket that was launched in January. Seattle-based Spaceflight helped facilitate launch logistics for Swarm.

During the run-up to the launch, the FCC wrangled with Swarm over the size of the satellites and the measures that were to be taken to ensure the satellites could be tracked in orbit.

In December, the agency dismissed Swarm’s application for authorization, but launch preparations continued. Spaceflight Industries spokeswoman Jodi Sorensen told GeekWire in an email that her company wasn’t aware Swarm’s application had been turned down.

“Our customers are required to obtain the FCC licenses necessary to operate, and communicate with, their spacecraft,” she said. “Spaceflight would not knowingly launch spacecraft for a customer whose FCC license had been denied.”

Sorensen said Spaceflight deferred to the FCC with regard to comment on licensing issues between the agency and its applicants.

After the FCC learned that Swarm’s satellites were put into orbit without authorization, the agency set aside its authorization for launching a set of four larger SpaceBEEs next month aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

The redesigned SpaceBEES are standard CubeSats, 4 inches on each side, and probably wouldn’t pose an issue relating to their size. Nevertheless, Swarm’s deployment plan is now on hold due to the FCC’s concerns about the previous launch.

The FCC is not commenting publicly on the status of its review. Efforts to obtain comment from Swarm Technologies’ CEO, Sara Spangelo, have been unsuccessful.

The controversy has implications that are bigger than the size of a CubeSat. It raises questions about multinational launch licensing requirements, and how well the different entities involved in commercial space efforts communicate with each other.

Another potential concern is that the identity of the satellite manufacturer was kept confidential before launch, in keeping with a practice that’s more common in software development than in launch services. (A similar cloak of confidentiality surrounded Astranis Space Technologies’ prototype communications satellite, which was launched by the same PSLV rocket.)

Such questions could become more pointed in the future, due in part to the Trump administration’s push to reduce regulations and create a “one-stop shop” for commercial launches.

Read the full story at IEEE Spectrum

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