FCC is Inconsistent Regarding Small Satellites

According to an April 10 IEEE SPECTRUM report, “The FCC’s Big Problem with Small Satellites,” confusion and erratic enforcement at the FCC is sending satellite makers abroad. Earlier this year, the FCC rescinded permission for Swarm Technologies to launch another round of SpaceBEEs later this month and questioned Swarm’s suitability to be an FCC licensee. That came in the wake of the January launch from India, of Swarm’s tiny 0.25 U CubeSats after the FCC had told the California company that it was unable to grant its application for an Experimental authorization in association with the deployment and operation of “four spacecraft smaller than 10 centimeters in one of their three dimensions.” The FCC said SpaceBEEs were below the size threshold “at which detection by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) can be considered routine.”

The IEEE SPECTRUM article by Mark Harris suggested that the FCC’s stance could doom Swarm’s plans for a constellation of Internet of Things (IoT) communication satellites and “revealed that the FCC-licensed multiple satellites smaller than 10 centimeters over the past 5 years, including some as small as 3.5 × 3.5 × 0.2 centimeters. But the commission has also changed its mind from one application to the next, refusing launch permission for satellites that were virtually identical to ones previously authorized. This uncertainty has led to at least one satellite maker exporting his technology rather than risk being denied a license in the US.”

The IEEE SPECTRUM article noted that four PocketQube satellites were launched in 2013 on a Russian vehicle, and one of the satellites — the QubeScout-S1 was a 5 × 5 × 10 centimeter sun-sensing satellite built by University of Maryland researchers. “Because of its American roots, the QubeScout is officially a US spacecraft and thus required launch permission from the FCC,” Harris said in his report.

The researchers submitted a required Orbital Debris Assessment Report (ODAR), which does not include any minimum size requirements. The FCC subsequently granted a launch license, and, IEEE SPECTRUM said, the US Air Force Space Command has been successfully tracking the QubeScout since then.




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