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FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites (ieee.org)
581 points by visviva 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 320 comments

Wow, I love this story. It raises so many intriguing issues in one small space.

First, while the FCC clearly has US authority over spectrum, how is it that its charter includes satellite launches? Or conversely, if they SpaceBees never turn on did they violate the license? And on what basis does the FCC get to evaluate the risk of other things in orbit, isn't that NORAD's job? And what if this had been a startup in Bangalore or Mumbai, would they be getting crap from the FCC for launching the very same satellites?

Now I understand the leverage the FCC can use with US based launch services, sort "Follow our rules and do what we say or we will have the FAA pull your launch permit." but that leverage doesn't really exist for foreign launch services. Heck the Russians might launch stuff like this just to irritate the FCC and tweak our noses.

And it raises a whole different set of questions about cubesats. How closely are they inspected at Integration time? Is is possible to create a cubesat that looks and smells like it is doing one mission but is actually doing a different mission? What happens when someone launches an orbital spy satellite network? Not the one you would expect taking pictures of people's back yards, but a collection of satellites with large lenses that are looking up and over at the things coming up from the ground. Imagine an ion engine powered small sat that works its way up to GEO and snaps pictures of all the satellites it can find and beams those images down to earth.

Let's say their quad systems stays under the weight of the typical cubesat limit of 1.33kg. That means they could launch 100,000+ satellites on a single F9 load. And while that would be silly (They would all be in a very similar orbit) it suggests how easily someone could (in theory) just "throw up" a covert microwave based communication network on a very small number of launches.

These are definitely 21st century sorts of problems :-).

The short answer is that the Outer Space Treaty states that all commercial satellites are under the jurisdiction of the country in which the company exists, regardless of where they are launched. SpaceBees is a California based company, so the US government is the ones they answer to, not the country they hired to launch their stuff. Since satellites must communicate and could potentially disrupt the communications of others, the FCC gets a say in what goes on. The FCC is not the only authority in town, just the ones taking action here.

As far as satellites with covert missions or missions other than what is publicly stated, we should probably assume they already exist. The NRO is pretty sneaky and the USAF has never stated what the heck the X-37 is doing. There's a good chance that they have other satellites with publicly acknowledged missions that are doing something else behind the scenes. They are probably attempting to guard against that same behavior from others as well.

Doing optical imaging probably isn't feasible for a cubesat, it takes quite a bit of fuel to get next to another satellite and not hit it, so a cubesat can't zip up to dozens of satellites to get detailed images with a smartphone size sensor- it would run out of fuel too quickly. Instead, optical satellites will probably have their own orbit and accept that they will be far away from their targets. Large distances require a huge aperture if you want a good image, but it's not hard to imagine a satellite such as Hubble occasionally rotating to catch an image of Russian or Chinese tech. Plus, the NRO has sent up several very large payloads that we don't know what they do, so there's probably a large aperture imaging satellite snapping images we don't know about. What cubesats can do is extend long antennas that were folded up for launch. A small cubesat could be effective at RF surveillance and a constellation of cubesats and good signal processing could provide a surveillance system for other satellites that could spot various communication types and record the orbital information of the satellites doing the transmitting.

> Doing optical imaging probably isn't feasible for a cubesat

Planet Labs' Dove satellites aren't much bigger than a typical cube sat (they're like 3 cube sats stacked together), have reaction wheels, and the "wings" have enough lift to be able to control altitude https://arxiv.org/pdf/1509.03270.pdf (page 9)

Not just the NRO: it's well known that the NSA operates SIGINT satellites, which have giant parabolic antennas used to Hoover up the RF spectrum aimed at areas of interest.

The NRO launches them and hands OPCON over to the NSA.

Couldn't they just open a subsidiary in a country that doesn't have very strict communications regulations?

Regulators and courts don't tend to enjoy those types of games. I wouldn't expect it to work so long as you maintain your actual business in the US.

Putting on my tin foil hat.

> Is is possible to create a cubesat that looks and smells like it is doing one mission but is actually doing a different mission?

You mean like Zuma which SpaceX launched and then was declared as "lost" but might have secretly been designed to look like it was lost?


Google a bit about the "misty" stealth satellite design that is apparently related to the NRO...

If you wanted to "lose" a satellite by launching it into a known orbit, you could design a satellite that is matte black, physically stealthy, with a very large supply of xenon propellant and ion thruster so that over a period of many months it could totally change its orbital plane into something new.

Plane change maneuvers are very expensive in terms of delta-V, but the US certainly has the money to launch things that have a thousand kg of extra propellant on board.

Or some combination of plane change and movement into a highly elliptical/molniya type orbit.

Thereby making it quite difficult for opposing nation-state level agencies to locate.

edit: the easy way to know if spacex screwed up or not is if they receive future "national security" launch missions. If no further such missions occur, and the feds continue shoveling money at United Launch Alliance, that would be telling.

If you wanted to "lose" a satellite by launching it into a known orbit, you could design a satellite that is matte black, physically stealthy, with a very large supply of xenon propellant and ion thruster so that over a period of many months it could totally change its orbital plane into something new.

The USAF figured out how to detect such satellites back in the 1980s.[1] The Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) looks at the sky with three 40-inch telescopes per site. This automatic system has a big star catalog, and can detect when something blocks its view of a star. The telescopes are some distance apart, and so they can see time differences between something occulting a star and compute range. The multiple telescopes allow disambiguating problems such as clouds, aircraft, and birds.

If something looks interesting enough, one of the telescopes is switched to laser mode, and a laser flash is used to illuminate the target. Even black objects reflect some light.

GEODSS was the first fully computerized telescope system, and it generated far more usable data than film-based systems. One of the old GEODSS sites was used to look for near-earth asteroids for years, and found most of the known ones. Now, of course, everybody has multi-megapixel imagers on telescopes and enough computer power to analyze the results.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Space_Surveillan...

Unless they were painted with VentaBlack?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vantablack

I wasn't aware that let stars shine through solid objects.

“If something looks interesting enough, one of the telescopes is switched to laser mode, and a laser flash is used to illuminate the target. Even black objects reflect some light.”

I was referring to this part.

That wasn't the part about finding satellites, though.

And 99.965% absorption is still visible in a bright light.

There's an interesting demonstration of this on Youtube:

"The Worlds Blackest Black vs The Worlds Brightest Flashlight (32,000 lumen)—Which Will Win?"


To summarize, the flashlight wins, and it's reasonable to expect the effect would be the same with a laser and sensitive detection equipment.

@zak (sorry, I couldn't reply directly)

That isn't Vantablack as such though, is it? Afaik, Vantablack proper requires a specific application process [1], which I've mentally envisaged as being something akin to growing diamonds in a lab on a substrate, or applying flocking to materials.

I'd be quite curious to know what the reflectivity would be like on some clever coating consisting of vertically-laid carbon nano tubes, etc.

[1] - https://www.surreynanosystems.com/vantablack/applying-vantab...

Have to use a negative index of refraction metamaterial cloak

> “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status” after “a preliminary review of telemetry that was available to us from” the Jan. 7 launch, Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

It's also entirely plausible that the SpaceX parts did their job and something the government insisted on using / was sending up didn't work as expected.

Since failure is always possible, including from various forms of human error, and is often exacerbated by extreme conditions (such as launching to space) it is quite likely that we'll never know for sure.

It really /would/ be nice if there was a mandatory sunset period for de-classification (which required /active/ effort to keep reviewing and punting classified status forward).

>It's also entirely plausible that the SpaceX parts did their job and something the government insisted on using / was sending up didn't work as expected.

The payload adapter was not the SpaceX built hardware SpaceX usually uses, but was built by Northrop Grumman

Wow, that was quick.

a "matte black" spacecraft would get very very hot, too hot for most electronics and be detectable with an IR camera. ion thrusters use significant power and would require a large and visible solar array. misty would be technically possible but a motivated adversary would probably be able to find it. stealth spacecraft are difficult.

I think you could use black body radiators on the other 5 sides to bleed the heat from the side facing the sun.

those black body radiators(doesnt exist) will be visible in the IR...unless you can get them down to 3K to blend in with the background. Running a spacecraft that cold is pretty impractical because all the bus equipment uses power and any power=heat. Any power generation will be hot, rtg or solar.

they will be IR visible, but what do you mean they don't exist? Apollo used them to bleed off excess heat.

"A black body is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence." [0] Black bodies are theoretical, they do not exist. Apollo had radiators, they might have been black but they were not a black body. Vantablack comes close to a black body for the visible spectrum which is p cool tho.


> Black bodies are theoretical, they do not exist. Apollo had radiators, they might have been black but they were not a black body.

they were, as I said, "black body radiators" which are not theoretically ideal black bodies, but still manage to radiate black body radiation.

I think the term you're looking for is simply "radiator."

yes that is more parsimonious however in non-technical language the term "radiator" is associated with heat exchangers. if you put heat exchangers on the sides of your spacecraft they would function as radiators so I suppose it doesn't matter anyway, arguing semantics is a waste of time.

a "radiator" is a heat exchanger and "radiator" is the industry standard term. these semantics are required for effective communication about technical topics.

There have been black spacecrafts, like the Polyus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyus_(spacecraft)

A majority of the exterior surfaces on spacecraft are black, gold or OSR. The black or gold however is multi layer insulation. Where the outboard surface would get hot and the inboard surface would be cooler. Where the OSR surface is your radiator area. Regardless, all visible in IR.

One could perhaps build a large flat reflector to shield it from the sun's rays and angle it in such a way to not reflect sunlight or radar signals back to earth-based receivers. But I don't know the extent of space radar systems, maybe there are transmitters and receivers spread around widely enough that that would not work.

Like the JWST?

Yes but maybe larger and angle to present an oblique surface to earth based and perhaps orbital radar and telescopes. Although I suspect this world be harder than it sounds due to the number of such radars likely in orbit.

The issues were apparently with Zuma, not with the Falcon 9. So the question is if Northrop Grumman screwed up or not. The feds are unlikely to stop shoveling money at them even if they did screw up.

The stated failed element was Northrop Grumman separation module, so there's no way to tell really.

Musk says he fears AI. I hear that since it was invented. And still most robots that fell cannot get up.

In terms of my life and future of my children, I am not afraid of AI, Mr Musk. I am afraid of you launching top secret government payloads, one after another.

Your argument is one I've heard many variations of. Ive never found it very convincing. Here's why:

20ish years ago, when I started my career, Google and Facebook didn't exist. Amazon sold only books and was considered a bold experiment. No AWS. People argued about whether linux would be ever be used in production. The iPhone didn't exist. Wifi was a newish spec, but most people getting online (which wasn't most people!) relied on modems, or isdn if you happened to live in certain places. There was no "internet of things" - heck "information superhighway" metaphors were finally starting to phase out, and the average American would still talk about The World Wide Web so awkwardly you could hear the capital letters. Self driving cars were total sci fi that could never happen because it's hard, plus who would you sue? (Plus cest la change, plus cest la meme chose)

(I might be off by a year or two, but the point remains)

I entered the profession about 20 years ago and have seen all of this change. At my age, I can expect to be in the industry for most of the NEXT 20 years. Before I even retire. Given that the rate of change accelerates - https://ddcvqwvagfyuw.cloudfront.net/content/uploads/2015/12... - we have no idea what to expect by then, but can expect it to be very different, all while we are still struggling with how to deal with the impact on society that faster travel and communication introduced from before I was even born.

Do I think AI will exist and turn on humanity in that time? Can't say. AI predictions have been notoriously bad. (Usually overconfident, but also in the other direction. 20 years ago it was obvious computers would be able to beat any grandmaster in chess sometime in our lives, but go was considered to be something dramatically past that.

So I don't know if it will happen or even be able to happen. But I'm not convinced by anyone pointing out failures in current tech. That's like saying human flight can't happen because a lot of people failed at it, or that cars won't replace horses because they break down too much. Tech changes and it is change at a growing rate.

To cite a metaphor: if you have a pond. A lily pad gets there. Next day you see there are 2. 4 the next day. Will they overgrow the pond? If you wait until the pond is half covered to worry about it (e.g. 20 days), you have only 1 day to handle it before 'maybe' is proven 'yes', not 20.

You have been in the industry 20 years, I have been in the industry nearly twice that and as far as AI is concerned, it is a no show. Certainly we have systems that can play games, we have systems that automate factories and other processes, but none of these are AI.

As humans have no understanding of intelligence and certainly not human intelligence, their ability to create an artificial one is effectively non-existent. Compared to the existing natural biological systems that we find around us, we cannot even duplicate their simplest processes with any aplomb. Our attempts are extremely inefficient in all areas, energy, speed, production purity, etc.

If one looks around, one will see much change occurring. Yet, in so many ways, little changes. People remain people, the problems that plague people remain the same the same. If anything, our technology is only speeding up the rate at which these problems are occurring. Much of this is because we don't actually sit down and ask if we should be doing something at all.

Just because we have varying success at developing various kinds of technology, doesn't mean we actually have the wisdom or understanding to use that technology properly or that we will achieve duplication of intelligence in a non-biological system.

In regards to your pond analogy, instead of using exponential growth, I think we could say that it is logarithmic growth.

>And still most robots that fell cannot get up.

They have started to[1].

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVlhMGQgDkY

I'm afraid of both.

> First, while the FCC clearly has US authority over spectrum, how is it that its charter includes satellite launches? Or conversely, if they SpaceBees never turn on did they violate the license? And on what basis does the FCC get to evaluate the risk of other things in orbit, isn't that NORAD's job? And what if this had been a startup in Bangalore or Mumbai, would they be getting crap from the FCC for launching the very same satellites?

It's just an expansion of their mandate happens all the time. Instead of creating a whole new department just to regulate launches adding it to the department that will be issuing a license anyways (anything worth putting up is going to be transmitting down so pretty much any launch will have the FCC looking at it already).

As for the rest it's really hard to do much of anything covertly in space, if it's above the size of a softball the DoD will pick it up on it's space monitoring sensors. Same thing with changing orbits unannounced they'll know within at most an orbit when the object suddenly is not where they expect it to be.

In the end the answer is could you? Yes, theoretically. But you'd have to find a launch company willing to host you and prey you have somewhere good to hide/a host strong enough to protect you because you're going to piss off every single country with a space program.

If the thing about the dods tracking capabilities was true there would not be satellites that are lost and found decades later by amateurs

If you're talking about IMAGE it was known where it was NASA just didn't know that it was still transmitting. IIRC the discoverer actually used the orbital elements to determine what satellite he was seeing. They still had an active and accurate TLE for it they'd just stopped checking because NASA thought it was dead in space after the eclipse a couple years ago failed to reset the broken power supply. [0]

[0] https://skyriddles.wordpress.com/2018/01/21/nasas-long-dead-...

"the thing about the dods tracking capabilities" is true. They know what's up there, down to lost tool bags.

The instances you're thinking of are either "lost" as in "presumed dead" (like IMAGE) or non-Earth orbit probes (like ISEE-3). IMAGE was never untracked, and ISEE-3 was never supposed to be tracked (but its location was still known.)

If the dod tracking is really fantastic, the smart move might be to not demonstrate it remotely publicly.

Remember when the NRO gave NASA two space telescopes no one knew they even had, bother where comparable in scope/complexity to Hubble.

> NRO gave NASA two space telescopes no one knew they even had

The only reference I can find for this says the NRO satellites won't be launch till 2020. They're not up in orbit.

[0] https://www.space.com/16000-spy-satellites-space-telescopes-...

My point was that the NRO had the resources to build two Hubble level telescopes that no one knew they had until they handed them over, an agency with little oversight, large amounts of cash and very few leaks.

If they are handing over that kind of technology I wouldn’t rule out them having some amazing tracking stuff we know nothing about and won’t for a decade or two if ever.

Hubble's tech isn't particularly impressive any more. NRO having 2 spare is more a sign of just how much money is sloshing around over there than anything else I think.

> It's just an expansion of their mandate happens all the time.

At least we now know that Pai's talk of scaling FCC back to let the legislators decide was untrue!

> Is is possible to create a cubesat that looks and smells like it is doing one mission but is actually doing a different mission?

probably yes, but as 99.9% of cubesats have no thrusters or maneuvering capability (yet), and their initial TLEs are known. It's pretty easy for a nation-state space agency or air force (USAF, UK, most large EU countries, etc) to aim a two-axis motorized tracking VHF/UHF antenna at them with a spectrum analyzer to figure out at least what frequencies it's communicating on. Even if everything is encrypted.

It's not as if any cubesat currently has the capability to change its orbital elements or do anything other than act as some form of radio Rx/Tx, or maybe operate a very small telescopic camera system.

I'm always hyper intrigued by the question of inevitability when it comes to space junk prohibiting our future ventures beyond the planet. At what point will Kessler syndrome occur? Is it inevitable or are we able to track all meaningful satellites with such precision that it's less of a problem than an annoyance?

I feel we are actually pretty close to being able to clean up the space debris. My optimism stems from the lowering cost of getting to space, the availability of light weight space avionics, and vacuum usable adhesives. Small, persistent, delta-v changes can be applied to space junk with lasers and from devices which attach themselves to the junk and lower a tether into the magnetosphere and energize it with a solar cell. Further, on orbit refueling on 'cleaner tugs' becomes more interesting with enough xenon gas stations. NASA did one of their challenges about space junk and it had a number of very creative ideas that were predicated on lower cost access to space.

There are real plans to attempt this, at least on some smaller scale.

Astroscale is one example: http://astroscale.com/

At some point it would be possible for an entity to either launch (or more likely refine in space) enough materials to focus sunlight across not /quite/ the earth, but the orbital paths. Since 'light pressure' exists, this could be used to counter existing acceleration and thus encourage orbital decay.

It would take a while, it would be costly to start up, and boy does this sound like a weapon from 50% of space sifi stuff I've ever read or seen...

However I suspect it's still the cheapest solution to the issue.

If it can push a satellite down from a great distance, and likely seriously heat it up and damage at a shorter distance, it is a weapon, the same way a knife or an axe is a weapon.

It's the way you use something that makes it a weapon.

Things are what they are, not what our arbitrary categories classify them. A knife is a tool and a weapon at the same time, and it can be a great number of other things, a cultural artifact, a piece of industrial design and a piece of junk, all at the same time. A thermonuclear warhead device can be a doomsday device and an essential tool for Mars terraformation.

So it's not the way you use it that makes a weapon, a weapon remains a weapon throughout it's non-violent uses; the oldest trick in war is to disguise weapons as tools before using them in an attack. See nuclear proliferation under the guise of atomic energy, the militarization of space, Hitler's powerful 'defensive' army.

It may sound like a pedantic distinction, but in practice, the fact that something IS a weapon, regardless of how it's being used, will drastically alter decisions. Imagine an unknown person coming at your family with a knife or ax in hand. Under the "not a weapon until used as such" doctrine, the burden is on you to prove the agresive intentions and you have no logical reason to be concerned until then.

I wonder if it's cheaper to fix it later or prevent it now. There might be huge opportunity cost today if we obsess over garbage collection prematurely.

Vastly cheaper to postpone now just don't send junk up, but the problem is mostly limited to keeping satellites in space not simply leaving earth.

Even then in LEO you get enough drag to limit risks and the worst case ends up as a trade-off of safety vs continuous fuel usage. Remember, space is vast but satellites and space junk are both really fast and stay up for a long time. Prevent junk from staying in your orbit and the risks dramatically decrease even more so if you add maneuverability. Even better LEO prevents your satellite from adding to the mess long term.

I would guess that their jurisdiction was written into law because of the predominant role of telecommunications and media in the commercial satellite launch market.

My knowledge is more certain about the international situation - the US has jurisdiction over its own objects because the Outer Space Treaty gives each party to it the right (and responsibility) to regulate the objects its citizens launch into space. I'm actually curious why the US decided that it was their job to regulate satellites launched by India but owned and operated by US citizens and corporations, but India seems to agree (because they didn't try to do the licensing for these satellites).

Another issue: vertical boundaries of the national borders. If something flies 400 miles above the US, is it still in the US?

No it's not.

As long as the satellite is behaving itself, it can fly over any country and will not be subject to any laws from that country. The Outer Space Treaty was set up in part to clarify issues like this (also to keep nukes out of space). The US has no authority to restrict operations of an overhead satellite- which is good, because then they could prevent satellites orbiting in some of the most valuable inclinations. The only instances that I know of where a country did anything about an overhead satellite was China, when they blinded a satellite with a laser from the ground and when they tested an anti-satellite missile on one of their own satellites.

The US has also destroyed two of its satellites, P78-1 Solwind in 1985 and USA-193 in 2008.

Legal paper using the expression "gray zone": https://scholar.smu.edu/jalc/vol81/iss3/3/

> The only instances that I know of where a country did anything about an overhead satellite was China

Then it's not a categorical "not". And what happens when the satellite is not "behaving itself", as you put it?

Then again, where does the border lie? Limit of space? 10 miles? 50 miles?

We have an interesting gray zone here, folks. Where there's a gray zone, there's a lot of money to be made.

It's still a categorical "not" as far as international law goes. There are no competing treaties that other countries have signed with different interpretations of the fair use of space. Just because China (and the US, as other replies have pointed out) has broken the rules doesn't change the fact that they are still the rules. A satellite that is behaving itself is one that isn't violating the OST- generally that means not interfering with other satellites and their missions and not carrying nuclear weapons.

62 miles (100 km) altitude is where the border lies.

This is not a gray area at all and there is no money to be made by violating the OST. If you start a company in a country that has signed the OST you will be held to the rules. Any country that isn't a signatory to the OST doesn't have a robust space program and will likely still require you to follow the OST because there will be strong international pressure on them. Even if a country did allow you to violate the OST you wouldn't have a viable business because all the economically developed countries of the world have signed the OST and won't do business with someone that is interfering with their access to space.

Laws and treaties aren't magic. Countries break them all the time and often get away with it.

China wasn't really punished when it blew up a satellite, and I doubt that was allowed by the treaty.

The better question, though, is are there any MOTIVATION to break the treaty?

Well there certainly already was motivation for china, I there is certainly motivation for other countries to engage in weapons testing. Especially if they could do their weaponization without being noticed. I doubt that every rocket in the world is checked, top to bottom for weapons.

Would you comment on this please: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airspace#Vertical_boundary ?

> 62 miles (100 km) altitude is where the border lies.

This is incorrect on several levels (which, of course, did not prevent you from downvoting my post):

* The Outer Space Treaty does not have a definition of the boundary. Here it is, go ahead, look it up: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/oute.... It's hardly a "law" (technically, a treaty is not a law either), more of a set of guidelines and some more concrete restrictions to solve some Cold War issues.

* You are referring to the Kármán line (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kármán_line) which is commonly referred to as a boundary between the atmosphere and the outer space.

* On the other hand, the United States considers an "astronaut" anyone who has flown over 50 miles (80 km) above the surface.

You already see the discrepancy, don't you?

Most importantly though, both "boundaries" are merely working benchmarks, without any legal authority.

The actual boundaries are determined by national laws. I have no doubt that many, if not most national laws have no such boundaries defined at all. (Heck, if the US doesn't have a solid definition, then who does?)


> It's still a categorical "not" as far as international law goes

What is that "international law"? Not the Outer Space Treaty, I presume? If you seriously believe that China openly violated a specific law, I'd be curious to know what law it was.

Generally speaking, "law" is an enforceable set of rules. The "international law" is, sans special cases like war crimes, a misnomer.

Even if we look at something more mundane and reachable like maritime borders, which are more or less firmly defined, they've been disputed a bajillion times (for example, Spratly Islands) or simply ignored or "freely interpreted" (Russia's Arctic exploration).

I maintain, we have a gray zone here.

Yes, sometimes there's a gray zone about the edge of space.

But those heights are well below the height you need for a stable orbit.

Anything orbiting multiple times is in space, and nobody will argue.

So in the context of satellites, you're wrong.

Are you another eager downvoter without reading?

The context is about the vertical extent of the national borders, not the edge of space.

Who says the vertical border ends with the edge of space? Once again, the vertical extent is not defined. Say, tomorrow they come up with a Skylon-like contraption that will be used in civil aviation. That would give a reason to the national governments to redefine the notion of "airspace".

> Anything orbiting multiple times is in space, and nobody will argue.

And how do you know that? Once again, with the example of China, nobody could come up with counterarguments precisely because it's undefined.

Just because you don’t know where the border is drawn does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Naturally. Do you know where it exists though?

Because the Kármán line is not the border.

I guess the first questions have the same answers as: if a boat crashes on another in international waters?

only difference is that satellites can remain aflot years after their owners bankrupted...

The state from which they launched (presumably with permits) is fully responsible for the damages. I.e. if they allow smallcorp inc. to launch a tiny cubesat; if that cubesat hits something important and causes $1 billion in damages, then that country is liable for the full amount, no matter if they can recover that money from the (likely bankrupt) company or not.


It also raises a bunch of issues around:

- Kessler Syndrome, a la "Is the plotline of Gravity inevitable with increasing commercialization of space?"

- Weaponization of space. If you could get 4 unauthorized satellites up on a launch that was forbidden because "they're a danger to other satellites", could you do the same with satellites that are intentionally a danger to other satellites? Could a private company knock out the U.S's spy satellites at just the moment they are most needed? Could it set up its own spy network?

- How about ABM defense? Could a private company create a network of smart space junk with the purpose of stopping a potential nuclear war before it starts? (Incidentally, such an organization could end up in the position of both saving humanity and opposing U.S. national interests, given that the U.S. has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on Earth, which should make Americans wonder if U.S. national interests are aligned with humanity. Crimson Tide was a great movie.)

- More generally: nation states have traditionally had a monopoly around certain technologies. Spaceflight, weaponry, cryptography, communication networks. That monopoly is fraying, or in some cases, has already frayed beyond repair. What does that mean for the power balance on earth, and for social organization on the planet? There are some private organizations that are arguably more powerful than full nation-states nowadays.

21st century sorts of problems indeed. At least the 21st century looks like it'll be exciting, if somewhat scary.

- Kessler Syndrome, a la "Is the plotline of Gravity inevitable with increasing commercialization of space?"

Kessler Syndrome wouldn't stop us directly. If we absolutely had to, we could use air breathing electromagnetic thrusters to keep extremely low orbit satellites aloft.


However, if global warming requires us to do geoengineering, such a handicap might well result in the extinction of human civilization.

There are some private organizations that are arguably more powerful than full nation-states nowadays.

There were private companies that basically owned some 3rd world countries in the 20th century. This situation probably still exists to some extent.

>There were private companies that basically owned some 3rd world countries in the 20th century. This situation probably still exists to some extent.

Just one example that never seizes to amaze me:

By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had a private army of about 260,000—twice the size of the British Army.


Was East India Company really independent from the government? Wikipedia says [1] in 18th century the government effectively had control over those territories.

I think the idea was to allow private investors to colonize new territories and later seize control from them.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company#East_India_...

> Was East India Company really independent from the government?

It had an army, larger than the one from its home country. AFAIK, it was officially not independent, but what difference does the official title make?

The fact that nominally WIC "had" the army doesn't necessarily meant that in the case of conflicting orders it would obey WIC, as the Indian armies were run by British officers who also had sworn loyalty to the King/Queen.

I think it was not independent, it might be just a trick to make government not responsible if soldiers did something bad.

Nation states might not have a monopoly on the various technologies they gave birth to, but they still have the advantage in terms of budgets and non-profit status.

Source: Working for a nation-state funded science lab.

Not to mention recognized sovereign with de jure ability to physically regulate activity within its borders.

Russia has way more nuclear warheads than US. This has been true since later stages of Cold War (although the gap has narrowed a lot since end of Soviet Union, Russians used to have about 40 thousand nukes in mid 80s). What they lack in high tech and quality they make up with much larger quantities. It’s also a part of strategy to overwhelm any sort of anti missile defense US might have.

Aren't those mostly tactical nukes?

I don't think this really raises the Kessler syndrome argument. The bigger question is: what was the FCC so worried about it crashing into and is that object classified?

There have been PocketQube launches which are smaller than these satellites which in theory got licenses.

The problem is that these are small enough that they couldn't be reliably tracked if they stopped transmitting. As for PocketQubes I only see one that's been launched as the smallest 5cm cubed version most are >=1.5u. I'm guessing the 2.5cm smallest dimension was too small combined with the proposed orbit, I bet they're more willing to accept poor tracking on objects that won't be there long.

They're not too small, as they seem to be actively tracked by AFSPC and others.

Also, there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris smaller than these satellites. It's not clear that four more satellites are really going to raise the risk bar that much.

They can be tracked but the FCC was concerned about how reliably they would be tracked.

> Also, there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris smaller than these satellites. It's not clear that four more satellites are really going to raise the risk bar that much.

Yeah but intentionally putting up more is still not a good idea.

> Given that the U.S. has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on Earth

[1] Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on Earth.

[1] https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-...

Largest stockpile of weapons that work?

Maybe? Only one way to find out really.

Decommission them all; then you will know for sure.

The only winning move is not to play.

If nobody is left does that count as finding out? If a tree falls in the woods...

It is also a bit of a strange comparison since the weapons produced today are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones produced sixty years ago. It seems like the US or Russia will prominently decommission old bombs and people will hail the lower number of nuclear weapons but in reality the total amount of destructive force in the nuclear arsenal long term is the same or greater.

Weapon yields are much, much smaller nowadays than in the 1950s and 60s.

The highest-yield US warhead was the 25Mt Mk 41, retired in 1976. All warheads in the inventory now are in the sub-Mt range, mostly around 150 to 300 Kt

Back then ICMBs were accurate to several miles, necessitating large bombs. Today they are accurate to meters. Not only you could do with smaller bombs, but it's feasible to attack many more targets. The destruction potential of today's nuclear arsenal is significantly larger than it used to be, although it uses smaller bombs.

how do you even prove that

Several inspections and basic statistics.

Your link seems ambiguous on that point, with 1710 deployed nuclear warheads for Russia vs. 1800 for U.S. (I used the word "stockpile", but realistically, only deployed warheads count since nuclear war has a tendency to be over in an hour.)

Regardless, if you're Russian you should also carefully consider whether your national interest aligns with the continued existence of humanity, at least as far as nuclear weapons go.

> Regardless, if you're Russian you should also carefully consider whether your national interest aligns with the continued existence of humanity

Putin said, just yesterday, that he sees no reason for the world to continue to exist without Russia. He was strongly impling that Russia would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if threatened.

I would assume as to the matter of regulatory precedence or domain, that if you're broadcasting radio within US airspace, then by definition you are subject to FCC licensing requirements.

Sort of, as low earth orbit is considered "international" space much like the oceans are further than 200 miles from a coastline. Or look at Radio stations that broadcase into the US. There used to be an FM station in Mexico that I could listen to at night between LA and Vegas because it was broadcasting way more power than the US would allow. But in that case it wasn't being operated by "US persons". And as an amateur I'm familiar with the rules the FCC has for me operating a space station, and they would pull my ticket if I violated them. However that leaves the question of the satellite. And the classification of it being a 'rogue'.

If you have enough money and clout you can fling your old car into space.

> And what if this had been a startup in Bangalore or Mumbai, would they be getting crap from the FCC for launching the very same satellites?

Oh yes, it's a whole big thing! See: https://www.fcc.gov/international

A lot of people are wondering why the FCC has jurisdiction over this. The reason is that Swarm is operating an unauthorized experimental radio station on American soil. [0] That's always been illegal, as it should be.

That shouldn't be the end of the discussion, though. Why didn't the FCC grant Swarm a license in the first place? Basically, the FCC claims the right to take action to minimize the danger of orbital debris created by US-operated satellites. [1] According to the FCC, this jurisdiction is granted by the Communications Act of 1934. [2] But that requires a very broad interpretation of the law. If promoting "the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest" lets the FCC make regulations about orbital debris, then surely it also applies to just about anything that has a radio.

I don't like what Swarm did here -- I think they are legitimately endangering other satellites -- but I don't like the precedent the FCC is setting either. This seems like a classic case of bureaucratic overreach to me.

Primary sources:

[0] Swarm's license application: https://apps.fcc.gov/oetcf/els/reports/442_Print.cfm?mode=cu...

[1] FCC experimental license rules, section 5.64: http://www.fr.com/files/Uploads/attachments/fcc/FCC_Part%205...

[2] "Mitigation of Orbital Debris", section (III)(A): https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-130A1.p...

There has been an ongoing struggle inside the industry to determine which US agency gets to be the "debris" authority when it comes to licensing. From what I understand, NORAD doesn't want be in licensing. The FCC is a poor fit and is over-reaching. Plus the international community doesn't necessarily want America being the authority on what you can and can't launch.

The real answer here, which the FCC just shoved right to the forefront, is that there should be a single international independent body to sign off on a debris analysis on all items placed in space. But then again, no country wants that because they either want the control for themselves or thrive on the gray area.

For the commercial launch industry, they don't want that either because most of them leave their spent rocket bodies up there (which are basically big rusting tanks with unspent fuel vapors). For the big old space, they don't want it either because they would be forced to admit that they have a fiscal responsibility to operate their satellites until they die and that their active-deorbit plans are bullshit.

What shocks me is that neither Spaceflight nor ISRO checked on the license. This is why you have mass dummies (big hunks of metal that approximate the satellite that can be launched in their place).

On top of that, shame on the CEO of Swarm. You could make the argument that she set trust in the industry back by years. She should pack it up. You don't get to ask for forgiveness instead of permission when you're playing in space. It belongs it everyone.

Until there is such a body, every country is responsible for the objects its citizens put into space according to the Outer Space Treaty. The interesting legal question to me is why it's on the US (where the satellites were built and from which they're being operated) over India (where the satellites were launched from).

(Which question, btw, shows the need for an international regulatory agency like you're describing.)

Because Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty says that the US, not India, is responsible for the activities of a US company launching from India.

> You don't get to ask for forgiveness instead of permission when you're playing in space.

It's been a long-standing ethical concern that the breakaway startups succeed by asking for forgiveness (e.g. ride sharing and room letting). Who is to decide that space is any different? And when the technicality is based on radio-waves, why RF spectrums more sacred than housing laws?

The technicality isn't radio waves. It's object size. FCC rejected Swarms application because it wanted to use satellites smaller than the smallest 1U CubeSat specs. Apparently, tracking for these objects gets much hard the smaller they get, or something like that. But once its up, it's up, and the physical risk cannot be mitigated with an off-switch the way signal interference could, there are simply now 4 quarter-U sized sats too small to track as effectively as standard sats, which risk analysis had shown posed a too-high potential for harm.

I don't get the "international" part. Any country could add it's own regulator and companies wanting to serve the local market would have to abide by it. If you want to serve a global market, you'd have to satisfy them all, including FCC.

Of cause there is little incentive to to create such agencies as long as the FCC is taking care of it well.

It’s not just this. There are a number of things in the airline space that are only tangentially related to spectrum, such as in-flight phone calls over WiFi that have at least touched on FCC. Even though it’s 90 percent about passenger annoyance as opposed to actual communications issues.

I don't think that's a good example. The FCC regulations should only be covering the communication issues and there significant issues, for example cell phones at high altitudes consume spectrum from a wide area of towers.

It's the FAA regulations that cover passenger issues.

It's pretty clear though that the FCC is basing its decision at least as much on the fact that lots of people hate the idea of calls in planes as on any technical issues. (I fully support banning voice calls by the way. It's not clear that the FCC that authority here though except in a narrow domain.)


The FCC's rejection letter PDF is only concerned with the physical dimensions of the satellite and mentions nothing whatsoever about the RF characteristics of the satellite or their test earth stations.

Which is exactly my point. The FCC rejected Swarm's experimental license application in December 2017 (thus the letter) because they were worried about orbital debris. They should be focusing on the RF characteristics of the satellite and earth stations instead.

Yes, I agree... I mean I don't disagree with the principle that corporations should be spanked for intentionally launching orbital debris that is below the tracking size threshold. 1U cubesat is not so difficult. I am just not sure that the FCC is the appropriate agency to be regulating orbital two line elements, minimum satellite bus size, etc.

The USAF/NORAD operates the US feds' space tracking functionality but is not set up to regulate things, they provide Secret and TS level data to agencies like the NRO and other parts of the USAF (for missions like the X-37), but I don't think the USAF spacetrack agency has any regulatory authority. Probably it should have such, if this sort of thing continues.

IMO the FAA should be the responsible regulatory agency.

No where is a perfect fit. I think FCC gets it because damn near everything going up is going to want to transmit back down as a critical part of the mission so giving the full authority over safety to a single agency to issue one license makes sense. The FAA does have authority over launches but seems like it's just when it's moving through the atmosphere.

Is the fcc decisions beyond a court ? I mean if the fcc or any government agency exceeds its authority the issue can be challenged in a court. Companies launching satellites probably have a lawyer or 2 and can pay a bit to keep their core business functioning

I disagree. I very much feel they should be focusing on both, especially if their satellite could damage and interfere with the satellites of others.

Why do you think the FCC should be involved in this, though?

Do you think the FCC should be able to make safety regulations for, say, airplanes or sailboats?

If said sailboats would endanger radio transmitters of international importance, why not?

Because they're the ones tasked with it. The FCC didn't randomly choose to deny these people the permit; they were given that mandate.

So if Swarm set up their station on an atoll in the Pacific, the FCC would have no jurisdiction? It's really easy to move a transmitter.

I think that's correct (this comment does not constitute legal advice, etc.). However, international telecommunications treaties would still apply and they'd have to deal with export restrictions (ITAR and EAR).

Could they operate it from a ship, which could be registered anywhere?

Could someone explain to the uninformed why operating an unauthorized experimental radio station should be illegal?

The skeptic in me says it is so that the government can grant monopolies to people like Lyndon Johnson who own radio stations so that they can become very wealthy. Then when they become President (or hold other positions of power), they scratch the backs that scratched theirs.

There's only a limited amount of bandwidth available, and if you transmit at a certain frequency, you interfere with other people operating near that frequency. It's like jamming their signals. If too many people do this, the entire radio spectrum becomes useless for everyone.

The linked FCC letter (https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=203152&x=.) actually explained their rationale well (satellite too small to track with monitoring equipment so there was no way to warn other operators their satellite was about to be pummeled) and their idea to broadcast its location with GPS was not considered reliable enough.

Still seems weird the FCC and not NASA or the Air Force makes this call. Isn't the FCC busy diving into rooms full of gold coins from Verizon?

I'm not surprised it's not the Air Force or NASA. As a civilian, there's no activity I undertake that any military person has any jurisdiction over at all (I suppose unless I go onto a military base). NASA, of course, is more of a research and launching facility; they don't really have investigators or the ability fine people.

Unless you use the GPS, and the cellular base stations are time sync with the GPS system, so your mobile phone.

Have you ever flown on a commercial plane? There are several parts of the US that you can't fly over because the USAF says you can't. They also control the GPS constellation and can turn it off at will or degrade the accuracy however much they like- although they've promised that they won't use the ability. The Army Corps of Engineers is involved in a significant portion of public construction like hydroelectric dams and do a lot of environmental regulation.

The military has jurisdiction over more than you might think, they just try to stay out of the way unless it impedes the national defense.

How does "global positioning system" work in space anyway? Was "GPS" an analogy? Is it actually using signals from GPS satellite network to determine position?

It would work the same way it does on earth. Spacebee satellites are at 500km and GPS satellites are at 20,000km, so it shouldn't be a problem getting a signal. You can even pick up GPS at higher orbits than 20000km, but it is more difficult:


I was under the impression that all non-military GPS devices did not work after certain thresholds such as speed were exceeded to prevent them from being used in missiles.


Entirely client side. Signal received is the same for everyone.

Military has access to higher resolution timestamps to improve accuracy.

Have to wonder if any manufacturers in non-COCOM countries are able to supply such units.

Or how long before you can get around this with an SDR.

Edit: looks like you already can: http://gnss-sdr.org/

On earth you can (in theory) get a position if you have a lock on three GPS satellites as you know that you are on the surface (intersection of 3 spheres). If you're higher up, you be a fourth sat.

I can't conceive how they could lock it down to low speed objects, as it is a one way communication link, but I'd be interested to know if it is possible.

Edit: looks like this is a limit built into GPS receiver devices, not the protocol. If you build your own receiver, then you can get around those restrictions. Not sure if there are licencing issues to worry about, but I can't imagine an adversary to care about that kind of thing, or a company that is launching 'rogue' sats.

It's literally GPS (with the artificial receiver limits removed)

It's being tracked. Look on n2yo. I don't know why they are saying this.

Isn't n2yo a predictor where you pass 6 kepler elements for every orbiting object and update every month for drag? In that case, IRSO could have updated those when they released the satellites right?

They're updated more frequently when the object is being measured.


I took a look earlier today. The epoch for the TLE of this object was from yesterday, which implies that it's being measured in order for the TLE to have been updated.

And looking again now, I see it was updated again today.

Incredible they have this data for objects the size of a book floating at over 100 miles over our heads.

Just about everything sent up is going to want to transmit something down. And one of the FCC's reasons for existing is to try and minimize interference for broadcasters.

How does the FCC have jurisdiction? Maybe the radio broadcast in US territory. However, it was not even an American rocket?

I am sorry, but not sure how the FCC has any jurisdiction here. However, I can see the issue with them being small and hard to and track, but still not sure how FCC is even the right entity to handle this.

However, the US is also is weird for instance taxes are based of citizenship not were you live geographically. For instance if you have lived in Japan for 10 years you still would have to pay taxed back to the US.

> How does the FCC have jurisdiction?

Because of its regulatory authority over commercial sstellites; the operator of these satellites applied to the FCC for approval and was denied because they did not meet safety (detectability by certain instruments) requirements.

> but still not sure how FCC is even the right entity to handle this.

It's the “right entity” because of the responsibility assigned to it by Congress. Whether Congresd should have given that responsibility to some other agency is, perhaps, a valid question, but fairly distant from the immediate case.

> It's the “right entity” because of the responsibility assigned to it by Congress.

I was not aware the US Congress has jurisdiction over the entire planet.

I'll bite. They don't, but they very much do have jurisdiction over the operation of domestic corporations engaged in interstate commerce, which this clearly is.

Events have clearly overtaken our regulatory frameworks. Political events are seeming to move towards nation state isolationism recently but reality is showing we need more supranational cooperation and regulations.

Correct, and that is an US-internal dispute between whoever is responsible (FCC seems to think it is) and that particular company. But this HN discussion is not about that at all. Most of the comments here about jurisdiction in space. FCC has no jurisdiction on that, although they surely seem to think they do, and it's bewildering to see all the US-centric comments who also think that.

Is what Swarm did bad? Yes, if we were to take FCC at face value (why should we?). Should the FCC be allowed to reprimand this american company? Probably, assuming FCC is telling the truth. Should the FCC act like the universal arbiter of space? No, it should not, and the sociopolitical attitude displayed here is much worse and harmful than the space pollution from Swarm.

Nowhere is the FCC acting as the "universal arbiter of space". And no reason has been given for not taking the FCC at face value on this.

And I disagree with the "sociopolitical attitude being bad". I fully believe that this "endanger other's things and don't care about it" attitude given by Swarm is the more dangerous one.

Where is anybody saying the FCC is the universal arbiter of space? As I said, the FCC is only involved because it's a US company. If it was a Russian company, it would involve the Russian government, etc.

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

Perhaps also important is that Swarm is an American company.

And the FCC is a group chartered with regulating interstate communications, not with being orbital traffic cops.

The FCC is charged with regulating communications of all distances, not just those crossing state lines. One of their primary missions is ensuring fair access to the wireless spectrum and keeping someone from jamming it and preventing others from communicating legally. Satellites must communicate to be effective, and satellites form a significant portion of our communications backbone. A rogue satellite operating over spectrum it isn't licensed for prevents other from using that spectrum, and a rogue satellite colliding with another satellite could cause debris and disable a bunch of other communications platforms.

The FCC isn't being orbital traffic cops, it is doing its job. While the FCC has done a bunch of distasteful stuff regarding net neutrality recently, the folks taking actin agains Swarm are clearly in the right.

And the secret service was originally tasked with protecting the monetary system. Organizations can expand their duties based on criteria other than their initial charter.

Perhaps swarm set up a foreign subsidiary to do the launch, and then got permission from a foreign regulating body.

Its possible, but the fact that they applied for a US license that was denied makes any actions taken by a foreign headquartered company look fishy. At the very least, the US based portion of the company is still responsible for following the law in the US and the foreign country would be held responsible for approving the launch of a dangerous satellite if there is ever a collision. Considering that the founder and the employees live and work in California there probably isn't a foreign headquarters and probably isn't approval from a foreign country.

The outer space treaty requires countries to take responsibility for/regulate their citizens and corporations actions in outer space. Regardless of location that such activities take place.

This is why rocket lab has a FAA launch license, despite operating out of new zealand.

Also, Senator Ted Cruz has been calling for revisiting this requirement in the outer space treaty. I’m not sure if anyone knows why yet - presumably he is getting some preasure from somewhere to modify it. I know it had some people scratching their heads as to why for a while. It’s not like the treaty is prescriptive. Maybe he wants corps or individuals to be able to have sovereignty in outer space or something.

The company that produced the payload for the rocket is in the US and was denied their application to launch this payload because it poses a risk to other satellites and spacecraft.

If all companies were outside of the US then it would come down to whether a treaty or similar agreement exists (of which I am not aware).

> a treaty or similar agreement exists (of which I am not aware).

If you're interested you can take a look at the "five United Nations treaties on outer space" which are the basis of international space law: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties.html

Specifically, under the terms of the Space Liability Convention, a state which launches an object into space is liable for damages caused by that object. A practical example was the crash of Kosmos 954 over northern Canada: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosmos_954

I can't upvote you more than once, but thank you! This'll be interesting to look into.

>For instance if you have lived in Japan for 10 years you still would have to pay taxed back to the US.

Only on US earned income. There are no taxes on any FEI if you stay off of US soil for 330 days in any consecutive 12 month period. [0]


Oh at least there is an exclusion. Looking further at this it looks like it start in the year 2006.[0] It has limit $100,800 and some other things that can not be excluded. However, I guess my knowledge was a bit out of date. Although, it would still suck to work 6 months in japan, and then work 6 months in the US for instance.


>Only on US earned income.

For Japan at least, this is incorrect. If you are an American living in Japan, both countries will tax your unearned income[0], regardless of the source.

[0]Social Security and other government pensions being the main exceptions.

They're physically located in, do business in, and are incorporated in the US.

That's a different Swarm. The one making satellites is http://www.swarm-technologies.com/

The rest of what you said is correct though: the FCC has jurisdiction because the company being discussed is an American one.


(for reference, I incorrectly stated "Hell, even their domain name is a .us")

American company using American banking system. FCC has all the jurisdiction. They should've incorporated in a different country.

That wouldn't make any difference at all.

If they go to India or New Zealand, and cause havoc for the FCC by doing something stupid, the US can crush them just the same by working with those governments. Essentially all nations capable of putting things into space have generally shown a desire to be good neighbors with everyone else when it comes to space. Just going to a different country wouldn't spare a company from the consequences of their actions.

> Essentially all nations capable of putting things into space have generally shown a desire to be good neighbors with everyone else when it comes to space.

China intentionally blew up one of their old satellites in 2007, in an event that increased the amount of space debris by as much as 75%.

NATO responded a month later by adopting guidelines for such thing never to happen again.

More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Chinese_anti-satellite_mi...

So you are saying the US is the world's bully and we'd better get in line?

No, they're saying that all of the space-going nations tend to cooperate, and that they generally want to keep things safe for all.

Except that still doesn't matter.

American companies break American laws all the time in their foreign branches. It's impossible not to, since countries have conflicting laws.

Imagine if all employees of international conglomerates were required to pay American minimum wage? Do you understand how ridiculous and controlling that is?

Actually, I think that'd be a pretty good thing, especially if that was higher than the local minimum wage.

Everyone's talking about the FCC and whether the launch should have been allowed; what I'm curious about is how the Swarm people thought they could get away with this. They obviously know that the satellites will be tracked; did they really think the FCC would just say, "Oh, well, since you already did it, I guess it's ok..." It doesn't make any sense.

It's possible that they have nobody on their team with any government experience nor space experience. This is a fairly common way that startups fail, they think they have a great idea but are unfamiliar with the regulatory environment they must operate in (banking and medical startups are particularly vulnerable). Consider that a cubesat launch costs about $40k, add in $10k for the satellite cost, you're looking at just $200k to launch these satellites. Add in a spare system or three, multiply by a generous margin of error, and you're still under half a million bucks. That's basically the same as hiring a couple employees. To further realize that they could be doing this on the cheap, these are apparently 0.25U sized cubesats, which are even cheaper to launch than the "standard" 1U size: http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/spacebee.htm

They don't necessarily need to be a huge team with a bunch of experienced industry insiders to pull this off. They could just as easily be a couple of recent grads with some of Grandma's inheritance from selling her house in Palo Alto.

But it sounds like the co-founders both do have significant space industry experience. Maybe not directly with the regulatory aspects, but a little bit of common sense...

I would argue that their actions indicate they don't have the experience they would like people to believe- not that I blame them for that part, every founder should try to make themselves look better to investors. They could be padding their resume or even outright lying, but anyone who says "it's no big deal if our license got denied, we'll launch without addressing any of the issues and try to work it out later" is not an industry veteran. Trying to keep to a timeline by going around the established process isn't what professionals do. Even Elon Musk plays ball with government regulators while pushing his ideas.

Edit: the article describes them as an engineer that developed a satellite concept for Google and the other sold his previous company to Apple. Neither of them have experience in this regulatory environment. Neither Google nor Apple are space companies. These founders are going in on the tech aspect of distributed computing in space, I doubt either has launched a satellite before.

> "it's no big deal if our license got denied, we'll launch without addressing any of the issues and try to work it out later" is not an industry veteran.

Uber did that, in a different industry, and has had success. I'm appalled by the behavior, but perhaps others are following their model.

What's the worst case scenario for Uber? Economic destruction of taxi medallions, company gets shut down. What's the worst case scenario for Swarm? It takes out a satellite, causes economic destruction, and gets the military-industrial complex all mad at you.

Yeah, that's the real question. Especially since, according to the article, Swarm was already planning to make their future satellites larger after the smaller design was rejected. Why jeopardize that by launching the previously rejected units?

The rate of satellite launches seems to be increasing at an ever-greater rate. With the advent of SpaceX, ISRO, and many new actors in the launch business space has never been so cheaply accessible. A runaway Kessler Effect (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome), making space access for everyone problematic, seems now a real possibility, especially if a few bad actors launch junk into space with disregard for the safety of others.

I'm not sure who should be responsible, but some coordination at the international level seems necessary to make sure this does not happen.

Do you have any links with more analysis on the problem today?

Kessler syndrome is something I always see discussed, but I don't really have any idea how large/proximal the issue is. Is this a 10-years risk? 100? 1000? Purely hypothetical?

I have read a few hard analysis papers over the years and the gist is “it depends”. If things went bad, a worst case Kessler syndrome cascading failure. It could take upwards of a year or even more to actually impact the majority of space assets.p, remember “space is big”. And in addition to the time the events would take to unfold, the time they will continue to affect the availability of safe orbits will depend on the altitude of the orbits and the mean particle density. Less dense objects at lower orbits will be more affected by the thin air drag and decay sooner, gradually clearing the orbits over a period of years. Meanwhile the higher orbits will continue to have collisions and junk orbiting for varying degrees of forever.

Overall the situation is best modelled with a pretty messy set of differential equations combining the differing rates of debris creation and decay by altitude alongside the rate of impact events that cause gradual reduction in the mean particle size and orbit.

As for the risk, it’s sort of a chaotic breakdown threshold, hard to model. And unfortunately also hard to predictively put risk estimates on.

Very interesting--thanks for the reply.

I sometimes forget there are problems out there that for all our analytic tools are 'too hard' to give an good (read: short) answer.

I'll have to go properly digging for some papers, though it's been a few years since I had to read differential equations...

ISRO has been around since the 70s

Yes, but I was under the impression that they have ramped up their commercial launches substantially in the last few years, and that they are sending more small satellites clusters recently. Maybe I'm wrong about their launch history, but my main point still stands.

And they do a very small number of launches every year.

Satellite industry perspective here. I read the PDF copy of the FCC letter. It appears the FCC wants to ban them because the dimensions of each satellite are too small to accurately determine the TLEs of (two line elements) using the USAF/NORAD spacecraft tracking systems.

There is nothing RF regulatory mentioned in the FCC's letter.

Does this mean the FCC has stated a position that it has a problem with all cubesats of similar sized launched by all other nations?

It is kind of weird that the FCC is in charge of orbital debris mitigation and avoidance. If the US feds intend to regulate satellite dimensions and orbits it needs to be done by some sort of aerospace experts.

For what is worth, it appears that the TLEs are known and they have NORAD IDs: https://www.n2yo.com/database/?name=spacebee#results

the interesting question will be, if the satellite bus size is below the reliable detection threshold for space monitoring radar, if the TLEs will remain valid after they have experienced 6 months of atmospheric drag and expansion/contraction of the atmosphere with solar cycles.



for example the GOCE satellite lasted longer than expected because its end-of-life period happened to coincide with a lower than usual amount of solar wind activity.

There seems to be lot of questions about exactly why is this in FCC's jurisdiction. In fact the authority for authorizing commercial satellites and allocating their orbital positions is ITU, but you don't deal with ITU directly but through it's national member organisation, which in US in this case is FCC (for some other things you might want from ITU you would have to go through NIST or maybe even GSA).

"The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Special Operations Command has also expressed interest in using Swarm’s network for “tracking and geo-locating a large number of items on the ground and at sea.”"

Hypothetically, could the DoD have given them the go-ahead without informing the FCC?

Isn't there a ton of space debris, ranging in size from mm to meters? A 1U cubesat is 10x10x11cm, and these satellites are listed as 10x10x2.8cm. What are the size bounds of the "danger zone" of items that are too small to spot reliably but still large enough to damage satellites? Would a 1cm³ / ~10 gram steel bolt be a problem? What about all of the chunks of debris created by previous space collisions and anti-satellite weapons?

Also, it seems like either (A) the satellites are big enough to track using the space surveillance network, negating the FCC's complaint, or (B) the satellites are too small to see reliably, meaning that it would be hard to pin any collision on these satellites. Perhaps there is a gray area where we can observe it, but not reliably.

I wonder how the FCC makes these decisions. The article mentioned that Swarm included passive radar reflectors, but that those will only help boost the radar cross-section for a small band of frequencies that are only used by a small fraction of the SSN. Ideally, our detection capability will improve over time and this will cease to be an issue. It would be a shame if no US company could ever launch a sub-1U satellite.

>Would a 1cm³ / ~10 gram steel bolt be a problem? What about all of the chunks of debris created by previous space collisions and anti-satellite weapons?

The satellites on this rocket were launched into a ~500km polar orbit, which means that they're moving at ~7.6 km/s. If they were to run into something at the same altitude in an equatorial orbit, they'd have a relative velocity of >10 km/s. That 10g bolt has as much energy as a sedan going at highway speeds.

Chunks of debris from previous satellites are absolutely an issue - the ISS cupola was visibly damaged when it was hit by a literal fleck of paint.

Considering the limits of battery storage (in terms of Wh per kg, and Wh per cubic cm) and triple-junction GaAs PV cells. I question how useful a 1/4U cubesat can really be, if it needs to have both TT&C/bus management computer, some sort of Rx/TX radio to serve a purpose, possibly a single orientation gyro, some form of cold gas thruster for maneuvering, etc.

Even with a 6U size cubesat you are very limited in terms of data rate throughput (in Mbps) you can achieve in bands above VHF/UHF. Simply due to the size limits of antenna you can fold down and the Shannon-Hartley limit.

I don't think they're too concerned with throughput. The idea was just some level of connectivity to retrieve basic information from areas that currently have none. The communication would literally be limited to what the satellite could store in onboard memory.

Sounds like what you can already bounce off amateur space APRS repeaters already for free. Just would be nice to have a few more.

Organizations that willfully violate the law, especially in ways that pose threats to the lives and property of others, should be terminated.

The US government granted them incorporation (or some similar status) and all the privileges that came with that. I wish the government would raise the cost of non-compliance by exercising it's right to revoke those privileges.

I am saddened that this has become acceptable practice in silicon valley.

Look at Uber and all the laws it broke. Sure Travis might be gone but the company stays and some people made a lot of money by breaking laws and exploiting others. For them it paid off and they will do it again.

It is also worth noting that he is only “gone” in the sense of no longer working at the company. His extremely lucrative ownership stake is untouched.

He will be allowed to profit handsomely from all of his illegal activities.

There's a difference between what is legal and what is right and the two don't always overlap.

In the case of Uber, their initial ignoring of the laws protecting Taxis I think was a good thing. Though this doesn't hold true for the things they were later accused of.

Yeah, but they also didn't want others to be able to do what they did.

If they really thought they were right, they would be lobbying to remove those medallion requirements for everyone, themselves and the taxi companies. They didn't.

You can only fight a war on so many fronts, better to just ignore the medallions until you have power. Once you do that the medallions matter less anyway.

If they tried to fight head on legally they likely would have lost (since that's probably where the taxi companies are strongest and incentivized to spend all of their money to win at any cost).

> The US government granted them incorporation

A state government did that, most likely.

I can't imagine this company will ever successfully be able to pull a license after this stunt. What a short sighted move.

Unless they received military assurances. There were a lot of DoD / armed forces mentions in the article...

Edit: And now that I think about it... you'd imagine the minimum tracking size of the US radars would be fairly classified. And likely something not bandied about the FCC in detail.

Yeah. There some irony in the symbolism: this time we have a SV firm that launched satellites that literally move fast [1] and potentially break things (namely, other satellites).

[1] See this comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16556716

Are you talking about Uber?

Couldn't this company just incorporate in Taiwan or India and keep doing what they are doing without any need for US approval?

> Couldn't this company just incorporate in Taiwan or India and keep doing what they are doing

No. They would have to move operations abroad and convince a foreign country they’re worth the risk. (American operations of foreign companies are still subject to U.S. law.)

Considering they launched the satellites in India's rocket, I think India would be fine with them.

Not exactly. It's unclear how they were able to launch successfully, but I doubt whatever mistake that occurred is indicative of the Indian government agreeing with the project. It's more likely they used social engineering of some sort to get their satellites on the rocket.

They apparently used a third-party to fit in with the other secondary passengers:

"Paperwork filed with the FCC by Swarm Technologies shows that it was planning to use Spaceflight, a Seattle-based launch services company, to get its satellites on board the PSLV. Spaceflight’s website shows that it did in fact supply 19 of the 31 satellites for January’s PSLV launch, including some with the SpaceBees unique 0.25U dimensions.

"Last year, Spaceflight senior mission manager Adam Hadaller told Spectrum that it checked all its customers’ safety regulations and communication licenses before launch. However, in response to questions this week, Spaceflight would only say: “Spaceflight has never knowingly launched a customer who has been denied an FCC license. It is the responsibility of our customers to secure all FCC licenses.”

"Neither Spaceflight nor ISRO could immediately confirm whether they routinely check launch customers’ FCC licenses. If they do not, there would seem to be little to stop satellite makers from deploying any device they choose into orbit."

They could, and then it would be Taiwan or India's problem.

Until one of their micro satellites hits one from the USA.

If I understand correctly (and that’s a big if given I’m not any kind of lawyer, never mind an international treaty specialist) the country which allowed the launch is responsible for the damages in situations like that. So no, it’s still their problem.

Only if the country has agreed to join that international treaty.

That's a great way to get your satellites "accidentally" hit in retaliation

China is the source of largest amount of space debris (as a result of testing their anti-satellite weapon). How will the US (or any other country ) know the country of origin of the space debris ?

The US (and presumably other countries like Russia and China) has a pretty robust tracking network that keeps track of pretty much everything in orbit above a certain size. With that info and when the strike actually happened it's pretty easy to backtrack to determine the possible culprits.


... in which case India or Taiwan would on the hook for it, if found out.

The US has famously polluted elliptical orbits and low earth orbit with test garbage for 60 years:



If they punitively had their charter revoked and the corporation dissolved by the chartering state, no. A corporation can move, but not after a corporate death sentence is executed.

Even in this case. The country from where they launched is fully liable; and the fact whether they can recover the money from the company (i.e. whether it exists or not) is irrelevant. If they didn't prevent the launch and didn't acquire appropriate safeguards or insurance (which would be feasible) it's their problem.

The employees and officers of the company could obviously set up somewhere else afterwards, but what happens in such a case with the company's assets?

The FCC does appear to be vastly overstepping their bounds here. Nothing in their charter gives them the right to legislate the minimum size of satellites. Can we terminate them as well?

It seems crazy to me that people with any kind of background or knowledge of satellites and aerospace would knowingly do this.

People with background and knowledge gave us "too big to fail" systems that are overpriced by 10x.

That's a hilarious comment. The New Space industry doesn't want orbital debris, either.

My point is that the line between disruptive innovation and reckless crackpottery isn't always clear, and the solution to one reckless startup isn't to give up on innovation.

Trying to make it in the space industry of all places with the government as an adversary is suicidal. In many commercial space ventures, the government (through its many arms) is often one of your largest customers.

Ah. I didn't see anyone recommend giving up on innovation.

I'm not sure how to feel about this. I know on the one hand that I feel communications in the US are an oligopopaly that hurts innovation and consumers. However, I'm not versed in whether satellite collision is a credible threat or merely an administrative hurdle to keep competition away from power-players.

I also assume pretty much everybody else who is so upset on this thread is also unaware of how satellites and debris are tracked nationally/internationally, so I'm confused why opinions are so black-and-white.

communications in the US are an oligopopaly that hurts innovation and consumers

That has nothing to do with it, since the FCC has issued plenty of licenses to companies that follow the rules.

This page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_collision) lists four "unintentional high-speed" collisions. I remember the furor over the Iridium 33 and the Fungyun FY-1C incidents.

I would say that the FCC's track record indicates that they genuinely believe the satellites to be a potential collision threat, given the large number of licenses they've provided to other space-based startups, and especially considering that they licensed Swarm's later 1U cubesat design.

How much does it cost to launch 4 of these 1/4 u satellites? Wikipedia says $100k per cubesat, other sources say a little less. Just think, that's within the reach of thousands of us software engineers - at least a few launches. It's like one year's mortgage payment in the bay area (I kid a little). But regardless, that's incredible! it could be your retirement hobby - you pay someone for a 'standard' cubestate, you program it, you put some cameras and other sensors on it, you will pass over anything in the world, your own photos of area 51 or whatever. Actually, would it be legal to take your own photos from space? Maybe to work around this issue you'd have to set up an llc in mexico or the bahamas. Still, I have to keep reminding myself, someone who was a young teenage when cosmos came out, I am living in the world of tomorrow!

I can't wait for CubeSat-as-a-Service startups.

Swarm tried to get FCC approval and failed [1]. It then decided to go ahead its plans anyway.

[1] https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=203152&x=.

I don't see how these satellites are physically any different than the many other, similarly sized cubesats that are equally difficult to track with the US Air Force/NORAD space-monitoring radar systems.

Reading the letter it sounds like they intend to ban cubesat-sized things owned/operated by US companies in general, because they're not capable of accurately determining their TLEs.

edit: I was wrong, these are 1/4 the size of a 1U cubesat. So very, very tiny.

They're 1/4th the minimum size.

1U: legal.

1/4U: not legal.

Oh, that is tiny. Definitely did not take that into consideration.

Having researched the data throughput/electrical load capacity of 2U through 6U sized cubesats somewhat, I am surprised that the Swarm company thinks a 1/4U cubesat will be useful for anything at all, other than very, very low datarate relay.

I don't think it's unreasonable to require that cubesats be at least 1U in size.

They are using it for very low data rate relay - that's a useful use. Why not let other people try to do clever things instead of stopping them because "in my day satellites were beefy, manly things, not these sissy little wafers". wtf.

the regulation should specify radar reflection specs and let people solve the problem.

It's not like it was dismissed out of hand because it was < 1U. They had a chance to demonstrate sufficient reflection (presumably equivalent to 1U) and weren't able to do so. (Their radar reflectors were not effective over the full range of applicable frequencies.)

A 1U cubesat is really small already. It is not like they are mandating 300kg things the size of mini fridges or even 3000kg sized geostationary satellite bus body size.

I can't imagine that'll help in court.

I’ve been involved in the SmallSat space. This is a shitty thing the Swarm team has done. The American satellite regulatory regime is on the permissive end of the global spectrum. Wanton disregard for the law, like this, threatens that light-touch regime. (Finger wag at India, too. This should have been checked.)

> Finger wag at India, too. This should have been checked

Yeah, I'm surprised it wasn't. I've heard of dispensers on the ISS being zip tied shut and not cut until confirmation of license.

It decided to go ahead with it's plans anyway in a different country. India doesn't need the FCC's approval. The fact that they are an American company doesn't matter. They did not violate any FCC regulations.

> The fact that they are an American company doesn't matter

You are wrong. American companies are subject to American law, domestically and overseas. Moreover, there are international rules governing satellite orbits and communications. These rely on countries overseeing their satellites. That entire regulatory regime was circumvented by Swarm taking advantage of the FCC’s light-tough regulatory approach (with respect to satellites) and the Indian government’a similar trust in Swarm having gotten its paperwork in order before shipping its bird for deployment.

> American companies are subject to American law, domestically and overseas

Absolutely not true. American companies don't pay foreign employees American minimum wage, for example.

US minimum wage laws are not written to apply globally, but if they were US companies would have to follow those laws.

They are subject to American minimum wage laws which (currently) don't require them to pay foreign employees a minimum wage. For a counterpoint, USA citizens are subject to USA income taxes even if they aren't in USA and possibly have never earned a single cent in USA ever.

> India doesn't need the FCC's approval

AFAIK, the FCC doesn't give launch approval, despite the fact that it's rules include space safety rules. OTOH, they do give permission to operate space-based commercial radio stations which are used in services operating in the US market.

India probably should apply reasonable space safety rules to avoid populating LEO with dangerous space junk, but FCC approval is orthogonal to that, and India breaking the rules isn't an issue.

> The fact that they are an American company doesn't matter. They did not violate any FCC regulations.

If they use the radios on those satellites for a service in the US, it will matter a lot. If they don't, it might not

"They did not violate any FCC regulations."

If they weren't incorporated in the United States and planning to operate in the US, then they might not need to satisfy the FCC. But....

They're an American company.

Further, their attitude is basically that of a spoiled child when told they can't do something.

Perhaps attempting to emulate Uber's dangerous pace of avoiding laws, yet getting enough funding to not care?

If they want to operate in America, they'll have to care about what the FCC says. And since they're an American company, skirting around the FCC's approval could mean this startup is about to shutdown.


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