Will the first unauthorized launch shape the future of space startups?

In-Space Logistics
July 26, 2018
Author
Jessica Holland
Chad Anderson
July 26, 2018
Authors
Jessica Holland
Chad Anderson

Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

Will the first unauthorized launch shape the future of space startups?
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Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

Companies that track objects in space, clear up debris and help manage the flow of “traffic” in orbit have been on Space Angels’ radar for some time, but an unprecedented event has demonstrated what a crucial role they are could play in the future. 

In January 2018, California-based company Swarm Technologies launched four “SpaceBEE” satellites, each just 10cm by 10cm by 2.8cm, from an Indian rocket. The launch sent shockwaves through the space infrastructure community, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had refused to authorize these SpaceBEEs a month earlier, concerned that they were too small to track. The event has been described as the first satellite launch unauthorized by any government, and there are concerns that this could be the beginning of a new era of unregulated objects in space.

Space traffic management tools are seeing an uptick in interest

The skies around our planet are becoming increasingly crowded, and while there’s only a couple of thousand satellites in orbit right now, tens of thousands more are expected to be launched in the next few years. Add the prospect of unauthorized and unregistered objects being sent into space, and the risk of collision worsens. That’s why a company like Silicon Valley-based LeoLabs — which uses a worldwide network of ground-based radars to map objects and debris in low-Earth orbit and to help avoid collisions — was able to raise a $4m investment round in 2017, after being founded just the previous year.

Despite their size, LeoLabs had no problem tracking the Swarm SpaceBEEs, its VP, Alan deClerk, told Quartz in March, saying, “They’re not too small to be seen. It’s business as usual for us.” Regulators are scrambling to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but, in the meantime, startups that are able to track small objects in space, and clear up defunct gadgets and other debris, are looking increasingly more important.

 

Video credit: LeoLabs

FCC threatens penalties for unapproved launches

Image credit: NASA

Typically, a company like Swarm would need to provide evidence of authorization before its products were installed in a rocket ready to launch; it is not yet clear how and why this step was missed. Swarm’s satellites were launched in India, after the launch broker Spaceflight booked a spot for them on a rocket owned by Antrix, the commercial face of India’s space agency. It’s possible that the company may come forward and say that it had authorization from the Indian government for the launch, but that still wouldn’t be sufficient to get the startup out of hot water.

Swarm’s satellites were transmitting data back to ground stations in the US, and FCC permission was still required for this step. (It’s the Communications Commission that regulates satellites in the US, because of the way that they transmit information, although there is talk of the Commerce Department taking over the regulation of space activities in the future.) The FCC launched a fact-finding inquiry, and released an enforcement advisory warning in April, saying that organizations will be penalized for launching spacecraft without the necessary approvals. It advised launch providers they should be ready to remove unauthorized spacecraft from their rockets if necessary.

Swarm’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley appears to have been terminated since the launch and they have had authorizations for bigger satellites set aside and permissions for other projects delayed. Meanwhile, its nanosats are still silently soaring through space, where, according to Swarm’s application, they could remain for years.

Lack of clear international policy creates risks — and opportunities

While in the US, the FCC is trying to demonstrate that it won’t tolerate unauthorized launches, increasing numbers of countries around the world are building space infrastructure, including launch sites and rockets, and it’s possible that not all of them will hold companies to the same standards. It’s possible that this could trigger a “race to the bottom” if countries compete over who can offer the most business-friendly regulations, and this could lead to an increasing amount of potentially dangerous and hard-to-track objects in orbit.

The international treaties governing space date back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was only huge nation-states that had spacefaring capabilities. On the topic of launches, they assert only that “launching states” are liable for any damage caused by a satellite, and must register objects launched into space with the UN. Dozens of countries have signed and ratified these treaties, but not all of them, and we haven’t yet seen how penalties might be enforced if a spacefaring nation refused to comply. Then there’s the fact that a single launch could involve companies from a multitude of different countries — a satellite startup, launch broker, launch site and ground station, for example — and the situation is much more complex than policymakers could have foreseen back in the Nixon era.

 

It’s unclear how the protocol will evolve, and whether we will see more unauthorized launches in the future, but whatever happens, demand for tracking, mapping, and debris-clearing companies is likely to increase in the coming years. The number of objects in orbit around the Earth is growing exponentially, and we’ve already seen a major satellite collision in 2009, which created more than 2,000 pieces of debris that were big enough to track.

A company that could clear debris would also be in a strong position to capture rogue satellites, especially if working in tandem with specialist tracking and mapping companies, like LeoLabs. This is a subsector of space industries that Space Angels continues to follow closely, and it is one that can help keep the skies safe for space infrastructure in the decades to come.

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