US FCC furious after four untrackable, rogue satellites launched into space

12 Mar 2018

ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launched four satellites into orbit. Image: ISRO

A company has gone somewhat rogue by not telling the US FCC that it launched four untrackable satellites into orbit, possibly causing a number of space accidents.

With thousands of satellites in orbit and no signs that space agencies and companies plan to stop putting more up any time soon, it is very important that those on Earth are able to know where any object is at all times, to prevent a collision and a space junk catastrophe.

So, news that a start-up called Swarm Technologies has launched four untrackable satellites into orbit has infuriated the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for giving the go-ahead to US communication satellites.

According to IEEE Spectrum, Swarm Technologies – an internet of things (IoT) start-up based in Silicon Valley – had applied to the FCC for permission in December to launch its microsatellites, but was told that satellites just 10cm in length were much too small to track.

If they can’t be tracked, then that causes a lot of problems in a crowded and delicate satellite ecosystem.

Despite being told no, it was later found out that the satellites – SpaceBee 1, 2, 3 and 4 – had launched aboard the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on 12 January.

They had evaded being noticed until now because, at the time, the ISRO cargo list just described them as “two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices from the US, with no manufacturer or operator specified.

They are believed to be the first satellites launched into orbit by Swarm Technologies.

The company was created in 2016 by former Google engineers with the intention of building a vast space-based IoT network that would be significantly cheaper than existing ones.

Future launch denied permission

Knowing that its satellites would be too small for detection, Swarm Technologies had originally proposed a solution that would put GPS trackers and radar reflectors on the craft, but that too was rejected by the FCC.

“The proposed addition of Ku-Band radar reflectors to the satellite would overcome this issue with respect to only the small portion of the SSN that utilises Ku-Band frequencies,” the FCC said in a letter to Swarm Technologies at the time.

“Use of GPS data from the satellites will be available only if and while the satellites are functional.”

To add an even greater complication into the mix, it turns out that Swarm Technologies had asked for permission to send up four larger satellites that did receive the go-ahead from the FCC.

However, because the start-up went rogue, the FCC has since pulled its permission for the launch of the larger craft due to take place next month. This could threaten Swarm Technologies’ future as a whole.

Both the FCC and Swarm Technologies have so far refused to comment on the launch.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic