FCC Says Startup Launched Satellites Without Permission

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What happened?

On January 12, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket was launched from India’s coast. While its primary cargo was a large Indian mapping satellite, dozens of secondary CubeSats from other countries traveled along with it. These included Canada's Telesat and England's Carbonite mission rocket. Also, to the surprise of the FCC, on board were 4 small satellites that should not have been there. These were Swarm Technologies' SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 which were described by the Indian space agency ISRO as “two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices from the United States.

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How did the FCC find out about the sats?

The FCC regulates commercial satellites, which helps to minimize the chance of accidents in space. The problem started when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental 10cm by 10cm satellites a month earlier, for safety reasons. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft. No operator was specified about Swarms application denial, and ISRO publicly noted that they successfully reached orbit the same day. On March 9, the FCC sent Swarm a letter revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission with four more satellites, due to launch next month.

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What do these SpaceBee sats do?

Swarm is Silicon Valley startup founded in 2016 by an engineer who developed a spacecraft concept for Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple. The SpaceBee satellites were built as a proof-of-concept for a new space-based Internet of Things communications network. The company envisions a worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low-cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.

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