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Satellites? What Satellites? Oh, Those Satellites!

We all have our “Oops!” moments – locking ourselves out of the house, losing the passport, missing a stop sign with the police right there… so we know how the folks at Swarm Technologies may have felt after their launch partner put into orbit a multiple-satellite payload, including four belonging to Swarm, and somebody asked, who has the FCC license? I thought you had it! Wait, it must be here somewhere…

But there was no FCC license. And yes, that is a problem.

Many hundreds of CubeSats have successfully launched over the last several years: tiny, cube-shaped satellites measuring four inches on a side. Swarm’s were only about a quarter as big: four inches square and just over an inch thick. Like CubeSats do, they used a “ride-share” launch, hitch-hiking on the excess capacity of a vehicle lifting much bigger satellites. But even small satellites need an FCC license, if they are to communicate through U.S. facilities.

Swarm had applied for a license, but the FCC turned them down. The reason? That little 4x4x1 inch device, small enough to lose in a cluttered desk drawer, was also small enough to lose in the cluttered space around our planet. The FCC tries to make sure it can keep tabs on what’s up there. A satellite in low Earth orbit travels at over 17,000 miles per hour, relative to the ground. That’s 10 times faster than a rifle bullet and highly dangerous. Astronaut Scott Kelly wrote about hunkering down in the International Space Station while an old Russian satellite whizzed by within a mile, threatening the station and the six people on it.

The FCC deemed the Swarm satellites too small to track, and its radar reflectors and self-location facilities inadequate, so it feared the satellites would become an unpredictable hazard to other spacecraft. It rejected the license application for that reason. After the satellites launched anyway, the FCC told Swarm it was rethinking the company’s qualifications to be a licensee. That could seriously threaten Swarm’s future plans for their satellite endeavors.

The incident also raised a broader question. Small, inexpensive satellites can be a great boon to communications. Swarm, for example, was targeting Internet of Things devices, which are expected to multiply rapidly. But unless the FCC and its government partners can find ways to reliably track really small objects – smaller than CubeSats – that line of technological evolution will end much too early.

(Thanks to Rick Fleeter, who pioneered ride-share launches decades ago.)