In January, a new company, US-based Swarm Technologies, launched 4 tiny satellites (‘Space Bees’) each barely larger than a slice of bread. The FCC told Swarm in December last year that they could not launch the satellites from the US until such time that the company had coordinated their transmission frequencies, and specifically that the satellites were so small that the USA’s Space Surveillance Network could have difficulties in detecting their presence in space.
Swarm bypassed the FCC and used an Indian rocket to launch the satellites.
The FCC has now wrapped up its investigation into Swarm’s action and has reportedly referred the case to its enforcement bureau. The FCC, which routinely does not comment on potential enforcement actions, could propose financial penalties and ban companies and individuals from operating satellites in the future.
The FCC’s concerns are that these small satellites – in essence unlicensed – could interfere with ‘legitimate’ craft, both in terms of transmissions and from the potential risk of collision. The worries also extend to the degree of control – or absence of control – that the owners have once the satellites are in orbit.
The FCC is not ignoring the popularity of these low-cost satellites, and says that they could be built with unique transponders to help with their identification whilst in space. But with the likely popularity of low orbit space tourism, and potentially dozens – or even hundreds – of these micro-satellites in orbit, the risks are huge.
However, the FCC’s examination will only add to Swarm’s woes. According to reports it has already lost a valuable NASA contract (from NASA’s Ames Research Centre) because NASA thought Swarm was properly licensed.