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Tiny Satellites Land Startup Company In Big Trouble With FCC

Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2019 - 8:37am
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2019 - 4:57pm
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Three nanosatellites, known as Cubesats, are deployed from a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer.

The Federal Communications Commission has fined a California satellite startup $900,000 for illegally launching, operating and communicating with tiny space satellites.

The incident shows how shrinking satellites could mean growing headaches for regulators.

Concerns over tracking prompted the FCC to reject Swarm's initial application to deploy its coaster-sized satellites, called basic electronic elements, or "BEEs."

The company filed a second application to launch more typically sized small satellites but, before the commission could rule, Swarm launched four of its BEEs into space aboard an Indian rocket.

During its investigation, the FCC also found Swarm had run unauthorized balloon-to-ground communications tests on cars driving in Palo Alto, California, where the company is based.

The case has revived growing concerns about how to manage the growing traffic jam in low-Earth orbit, and the dangers of "unlicensed drivers."

Walt Everetts, vice president of satellite operations and ground development at Iridium Communications, says FCC licenses help maintain good operational practices.

"Any time you go outside of those bounds, you run the risk of interference with others, or impact to others, and you become the Wild West, so to speak," he said.

Everetts has seen satellites evolve from multi-million dollar craft run by government agencies to micro- and nano-satellites run by high schools and colleges.

One industry standard, the Cubesat, measures 10 centimeters per side and can be combined with other Cubesats. The crafts are small enough to hitch rides on other scheduled spacecraft launches and are typically deployed using special racks.

Craig Hardgrove oversees Arizona State University's Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or LunaH-Map, which is a single craft measuring the same as six Cubesats arranged two wide by three tall, or roughly the size of two back-to-back cereal boxes. It will join 12 Cubesats on NASA's upcoming Space Launch System Exploration Mission-1, which will deploy LunaH-Map during its flight around the moon.

He said the industry is bullish on the small craft, despite growing pains.

"Everyone at high levels is very excited about the prospect of these small, micro and nano satellites. So no one is coming in with the proposition that we squash it altogether," he said.

Hardgrove said he's confident that regulators will adapt to the evolving satellite landscape.

Swarm Technologies' seeks to build a global network of cheap two-way communication satellites to enable internet connectivity everywhere and to support Internet-of-Things applications.

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