The Federal Communications Commission believes a Silicon Valley space tech startup launched four small satellites without permission, an unprecedented move by a commercial space company, IEEE Spectrum reports.
The startup, Swarm Technologies, aims to provide connectivity to internet of things devices in remote areas. Founded in 2016 by an engineer who worked with Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple, Swarm had applied to the FCC for permission to launch unusually small satellites. But the FCC denied its applications over concern they would be difficult for radar to track, presenting a collision hazard for other satellites and spacecraft.
It secured permission to launch traditional satellites next month with private spaceflight provider Rocket Lab, but that permission is now on hold after the alleged unauthorized launch, believed to have taken place on an Indian rocket.
Documentation surrounding the launch of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket on January 12, 2018 indicates that four of Swarm’s hardcover book-size satellites, SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4, were among those on board.
“The International Bureau requested that the grant be set aside in order to permit assessment of the impact of the applicant’s apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites, and related statements and representations, on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee,” an FCC official wrote to Swarm.
The company has said in FCC filings it has demand from a number of private companies for its connectivity, including two unnamed “Fortune 100 companies,” as well as interest from NASA and other federal agencies.
The case might also prove a test of the FCC’s regulatory powers over space matters, which stems from its authority to regulate broadcasting. Lately, the Commerce Department has also asserted authority over commercial space launches under Secretary Wilbur Ross, a space industry proponent, CNBC reports.
Investment into private space ventures has skyrocketed in recent years, as launch costs have decreased and technologies like cube sats have become more common. According to data from consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, between 2012 and 2016—the most recent years available and roughly concurrent with SpaceX’s largest commercial successes to date—approximately $7.6 billion was invested in space startups, compared to only $1.1 billion between 2000 and 2005.
Spaceflight, a Seattle-based launch services company that supplied 19 of the 31 satellites on board—including, documents suggest, the Swarm satellites—told IEEE Spectrum this week that it “has never knowingly launched a customer who has been denied an FCC license. It is the responsibility of our customers to secure all FCC licenses.”
If Swarm did indeed launch the satellites, it’s unclear what steps the company took to prevent them from colliding with other objects in space. In various FCC applications, Swarm proposed installing equipment on the satellites to make them broadcast their locations on request and installing radar reflectors to make them more visible. But the FCC was still concerned that wasn’t sufficient, and that the satellites could collide with, and presumably destroy, other spacecraft.
Swarm didn’t immediately respond to emails and voicemails seeking comment.