A US company appears to have gone rogue and launched a fleet of satellites into orbit, despite not having permission as they could endanger other satellites.
The start-up company from California is called Swarm Technologies, founded in 2016 by former Google and Apple engineers Sara Spangelo and Benjamin Longmier. On January 12, 2018, the secretive company launched its first four satellites, called SpaceBees, on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket from the Indian Space Agency (ISRO) along with 30 other satellites.
However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US, which provides accreditation for American launches, previously denied the company a launch license. It appears they launched their satellites without approval.
“If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites,” noted IEEE Spectrum, who broke the story.
They added that the FCC has now revoked authorization for the company to launch four more rockets next month. Swarm Technologies had been planning to build an “Internet of Things” network in space that could connect ships, cars, farming equipment, and more. Those plans now may be in doubt.
The problem with the satellites, according to the FCC, is that they are so small that they cannot be tracked. At just 10 by 10 by 3 centimeters (4 x 4 x 1.2 inches), they are about the size of a hardback book and a quarter the size of standard CubeSats, often used by students or smaller organizations for orbital research.
This means it wouldn’t be possible to tell if the SpaceBees – more specifically known as BEE satellites – were in danger of hitting other satellites, which are occasionally moved to avoid debris. Despite their small size, a collision would be catastrophic.
Swarm apparently installed GPS devices in the satellites that would broadcast their position. However, the FCC said this was not enough, noting that if the satellites were not functional, the GPS data would not be available.
“The FCC declined requests for an interview or comment, but the evidence for the January PSLV’s mysterious SpaceBees being Swarm’s BEE satellites is overwhelming,” said IEEE Spectrum.
It’s not clear how they were able to hitch a ride on the Indian rocket, despite not having authorization. But somewhere, something questionable appears to have happened. There will likely be some fallout back here on Earth, while satellites now have to contend with a few unlicensed obstacles to avoid.