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FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites 128

Back in January, the FCC pulled permission from Silicon Valley startup Swarm Technologies to launch four satellites into space after what it says was an "apparent unauthorized launch." IEEE Spectrum reports that the unauthorized launch consisted of four experimental satellites that the FCC had decided were too small to be noticed in space -- and hence pose an unacceptable risk of collision -- but which the company may have launched anyway, using a rocket based in India. The federal regulator has since issued a letter to Swarm revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission to launch four new, larger versions of its "SpaceBee" satellites. From the report: Swarm was founded in 2016 by one engineer who developed a spacecraft concept for Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple. The SpaceBees were built as technology demonstrators for a new space-based Internet of Things communications network. Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the 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.
[...]
The FCC told the startup that the agency would assess "the impact of the applicant's apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites... on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee." If Swarm cannot convince the FCC otherwise, the startup could lose permission to build its revolutionary network before the wider world even knows the company exists. An unauthorized launch would also call into question the ability of secondary satellite "ride-share" companies and foreign launch providers to comply with U.S. space regulations.
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FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites

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  • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @03:10AM (#56237787)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    Darth Pai does not like it when big telecom's interests are threatened. Your tiny satellites, designed to burn up in the atmosphere, pose a significant risk of colliding with established interests. As such, we refused your launch request, then you went over his helmet, and how he he will crush your balls, pitiful startup weaklings.

    • by mishehu ( 712452 )
      "Oh sh*t, not that! No, anything but that!!!!! Wooooooooaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!" Everybody knows I like to have coffee when I watch radar, right?
  • fcc? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gary s ( 5206985 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @03:11AM (#56237789)
    Aside from the fact that the satellite may have had radios on them, Not sure where the FCC has any authority over a satellite launched from India. Also not sure why the FCC has any say in how big or small a satellite can be?
    • From the article linked to in the summary:

      The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space.

      • Re:fcc? (Score:4, Informative)

        by TechyImmigrant ( 175943 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @03:17AM (#56237811) Homepage Journal

        From the article linked to in the summary:

        The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space.

        In the USA presumably.
        I assume Swarm Technologies can simply keep buying launches from non US providers.

        • But they need FCC approval before anyone in US is allowed to use their satellites. They can deploy them and then seek approval, but it generally increases risk as they may be left with unsalable services after spending money on production and launch

        • Yes, but since the company is based in the US and there are advantages to be in the US. It may be easier to declare the company a failure, sell off its assets, restart it under a different trade name and restart with a different CEO.

          And if that still doesn't work, the company could always sell out to Verizon, I hear they have a great relationship with the head of the FCC.

        • And by US entities. Swarm is free to disband in the US and incorporate and operate entirely out of India if they want of course.

      • Re:fcc? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Moldiver ( 1343577 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @03:24AM (#56237827)

        Only for the usa. The rest of the world couldn't care less what the fcc wants.

        • Incorrect, the FCC can ruin the internet for everyone.

          • No they cannot. China have prepared for this for years, and Russian authorities recently made statement that they are ready to operate russian segment of internet wiithout USA cooperation. So only US and EU people would suffer.

            • by Anonymous Coward

              EU has this covered too.

            • No they cannot. China have prepared for this for years, and Russian authorities recently made statement that they are ready to operate russian segment of internet wiithout USA cooperation. So only US and EU people would suffer.

              Dictatorships cut off their people from the freedom of worldwide comminication, for the purpose of maintaining their power, and it's the remaining free people who suffer?

              Odd worldview.

          • And how would they do that?
            Sure, they can make slashdot.org unreachable for me ... but not spiegel.de or wetter.de or https://www.japantimes.co.jp/ [japantimes.co.jp] or god forbid https://www.thesun.co.uk/ [thesun.co.uk]

      • Not in other countries it doesn't
      • 1. I find hard to believe that DoD didn't notice and sent a WTF out to various parties including FCC 2. I smell favoritism. A warning, a fine, regulatory or management oversight would have been "enough" for most players, also there are due process aspects on any alaphabet agency. 3. I wonder about interference - other US players actively tattling or influencing government actions.
      • by jd ( 1658 )

        But they refuse to regulate anything else they're responsible for, unless big money is involved. Then they'll regulate.

    • If any USA person or company is involved in any way (investor, employee, subcontractor etc) in a launch the government of the USA considers it as something it has jurisdiction over. IIRC, international space treaties actually require signatories it to regulate such activity by their citizens.

      • That kind of raises the question of what exactly is meant by "activity by X's citizens" in a world of investors and subcontractors and such. Old space treaties seem to have a strong government spaceflight undertone to them.
        • The old space treaties were crafted precisely to stop commercial space flight, a very real thing in the late 70's to mid 80's. Libya was going to host commercial space launches as it had been recently banned in europe and america, so then europe got all skitish because that was equivalent to Libya getting ICBM's... treaty after treaty was signed..

          The governments need to get the hell out of the way.
          • Commercial space launches banned in Europe? I thought commercial space launches were why Ariane was developed in Europe in the 1970s in the first place...
            • Who owns Arianespace? It is 100% owned by European Governments. It is, in fact, a multi-governmental agency with a commercial sheen of operations overlaid.
            • But we launch in South America, not in Europe.
              But that they are banned, I doubt. I think we simply never found a nice place for a launch site.

              • That probably has something to do with the fact that Europe isn't on the equator. Launching from the equator or as close as possible, like Florida, gives you a boost because of the speed of the Earth's rotation.
                • Exactly. That is why I said: I doubt someone banished launches in Europe, but I'm to lazy to google that as it is kinda irrelevant ;D

                  ESA and others launch from French Guiana. http://www.arianespace.com/spa... [arianespace.com]
                  Kourou, where the space port is, is 5 degrees north, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

                • Launching from the equator or as close as possible, like Florida, gives you a boost because of the speed of the Earth's rotation.

                  For orbits on or close to the equator. For higher inclination orbits (e.g. polar orbits and near polar orbits such as used by the Iridium and GPS constellations), an equatorial launch site can increase the energy cost of achieving the desired orbit.

                  One of the constraints on the orbit chosen for the ISS was, for example, being able to efficiently reach it from non-equatorial laun

            • Commercial space launches banned in Europe? I thought commercial space launches were why Ariane was developed in Europe in the 1970s in the first place...

              Note how they dont launch in Europe. Get it yet?

    • Re:fcc? (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday March 10, 2018 @04:54AM (#56237977) Homepage

      Not sure where the FCC has any authority over a satellite launched from India. Also not sure why the FCC has any say in how big or small a satellite can be?

      The satellites are owned and operated by a US company, so (by international treaty) the US government has responsibility over them. One of those responsibilities is to ensure they can be operated safely without posing a hazard to other satellites and don't violate any of the various treaties and agreements regarding satellites.

      • Cubesats are pretty small. These satellites look to be about the same size as those. Also, with the antennas deployed, they are way larger.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          They are actually substantially smaller than cube sats, as all 4 of them together occupied 1 cube sat space on the launch vehicle

    • The US is about to lose yet another corporation doing beat things because of the overbearing, unelected ruling class (regulators). This is the swamp Trump lied about draining. I look forward to getting gear sent via Chinapost that can listen to these satellites to outcompete my neighbors. ;)

      • by jd ( 1658 )

        Nothing wrong with regulation when it's done with the purpose of maximizing the space for everyone, fairly and reasonably, without imposing an unfair burden on those wishing to enter a market. In other words, regulation is about ensuring decency and fair play.

        Unfortunately, that's not what Pad Thai is about. He wants a market that is run exclusively for the big players who are giving him lots of money, and nobody else. Users are of no importance, only money.

  • by Robotech_Master ( 14247 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @03:45AM (#56237879) Homepage Journal

    I thought space radar was capable of keeping track of things as small as flecks of paint. How can any satellite be too small for it?

  • Solving the problem (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CptJeanLuc ( 1889586 ) on Saturday March 10, 2018 @05:44AM (#56238049)

    I expect a lot more plans for micro-satellites going forward, e.g. with the low-cost 3D-printed rocket company on New Zealand, plus generally lower cost to orbit with new technologies like SpaceX Falcon - so there is probably a need for further international regulation in that area. Both how things go up, how they stay there, and what gets to go up. I don't really know that market, but I wouldn't be surprised if this has not been properly dealt with.

    That being said, I would expect part of the solution could involve (a) something similar to transponders in aviation industry so that 'detection' is not a function only of size, (b) some low-mass low-cost technology to increase the satellites' radar signature, and (c) some international system for pro-actively registering satellites' orbits and orbital changes, instead of only relying on everything being tracked.

  • Using regulation to keep people out of the market just means that businesses will do business elsewhere. India and China are large, emerging markets and space isn't US territory. Good on the team for not taking "no" for an answer. Regulatory hurdles that keep them on the ground are at least as big a threat to their business as a government that won't let them off of the launch pad.
  • Our pet company SpaceX gets supremacy in this industry no matter what (it's fair though, because it's a free market, trust us (don't forget to pay your federal income taxes (: ))

  • umm... how does this help the US technology scene? If India gave go ahead, and they launched from India, what is the issue? if they get complaints about operating in India, wouldn't they just move to another country? I mean Vancouver is less than 2 hrs from California, if they want to be "close".
  • An unauthorized launch would also call into question the ability of secondary satellite "ride-share" companies and foreign launch providers to comply with U.S. space regulations

    Um, who the fuck died and made the US government king of the whole fucking world, let alone gave it the power to "regulate" space?!? Has anyone else on Earth claimed the entire rest of the cosmos yet? Because if not, I, Hallux Fucking Sinister, (yes, that IS in fact what the "F" stands for,) hereby lay claim to all of the cosmos, all universes past, present, and future, as sole owner and god-king, including any multiverse or polyverse(s) or omniverse(s), etc... This unavoidably includes all regions locat

  • Wait a minute - I thought deregulation was Ajit Pai's policy!

    Will somebody PLEASE get this idiot out of government?! PLEASE?!

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