How a snafu over swarming satellites led Spaceflight to sharpen its launch policy

PSLV rocket
India’s PSLV-C40 rocket stands on its launch pad in advance of January’s liftoff. (ISRO Photo)

When India’s PSLV rocket launched a host of satellites into orbit in January, one big piece was missing: the Federal Communications Commission’s authorization for Swarm Technologies’ super-miniaturized satellites.

The FCC had nixed Swarm’s application on the grounds that the wallet-sized communications satellites, known as SpaceBEEs, were too small to be tracked properly. But Seattle-based Spaceflight, which had arranged for the launch, didn’t know that.

January’s unauthorized launch of the SpaceBEEs resulted in a regulatory slap for Swarm, and no small embarrassment for Spaceflight.

Curt Blake, the launch logistics company’s president, vows it won’t happen again.

Curt Blake
Spaceflight President Curt Blake

At last week’s NewSpace 2018 conference, presented by the Space Frontier Foundation in Renton, Wash., Blake said the quickening pace of commercial small-satellite launches could make such snafus more common.

“It’s very difficult for the FCC or any government body to keep up,” Blake said. “NOAA, the FCC, the FAA — if you talk to anyone in the commercial satellite industry, you’ll quickly learn that the time delays are large on getting licenses approved. … What ends up happening is that it really compresses the time frame for approval.”

When the FCC flap arose, Spaceflight said it was up to Swarm to let everyone know that the authorization was lacking. But at NewSpace, Blake said that the FCC has sharpened its regulatory requirements — and that Spaceflight has drawn up new guidance to let its customers know “exactly at what point we will pull a satellite off if it doesn’t have an FCC license.”

If the license is lacking when it’s time to integrate a small satellite onto its deployer, generally around 30 days before launch, Blake said that will raise a warning sign — the equivalent of traffic light turning yellow.

“It’s fair to say that we probably won’t integrate it into the deployer without having a license,” he said. “But without question, it won’t be integrated on the launch vehicle.”

Spaceflight, the launch services subsidiary of Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, has arranged for the launch of more than 140 satellites on rockets including the PSLV, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Orbital ATK’s Antares and the Russian Soyuz and Dnepr launch vehicles. It also has agreements for future launches on Rocket Lab’s Electron, Arianespace’s Vega and Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One.

A milestone “dedicated rideshare” mission, known as SSO-A, is scheduled in October. That’s when Spaceflight has arranged for a Falcon 9 to deliver dozens of small satellites to sun-synchronous orbit.

Blake doesn’t see a slowdown ahead for small satellite launches. “We’re seeing a big move to GTO now,” he said, referring to geosynchronous transfer orbit. GTO launch deals now account for 20 to 25 percent of Spaceflight’s business, Blake said.

He said the rising satellite tide adds to the importance of the Trump administration’s initiative to improve the global space traffic management system.

“Honestly, a few years ago, I was like, ‘I really don’t want government or anyone to get in the way of this industry, because we’re growing super-fast and I think it would be a mistake,’ ” Blake said. “At this point, I think the growth has been so rapid that I think not having traffic management could easily lead to something bad occurring. … We just moved 180 [degrees] on this.”

Blake voiced a few concerns about the federal government’s approach, which puts the Commerce Department in charge of a “one-stop shop” for space licensing.

“The whole notion of combining a group whose responsibility is to promote space — or promote anything, for that matter — with the group that has responsibility for regulating it seems to me to be a recipe for a bad outcome,” he said.

Blake said the Federal Aviation Administration, which has historically regulated commercial space launches, might be a more appropriate lead agency. He called for the FCC to take on a bigger role. And he said it’s “probably not a good idea for the U.S. to be the one deploying a U.S.-only framework.”

“The day has long passed that the U.S. can put something forth and say, ‘Isn’t this great?’ with no input from our foreign partners or other spacefaring nations,” Blake said. “It’s just a bad idea.”