The launch of PSLV C31
The launch of PSLV C31| Representational image |
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US regulator said that the 4 satellites, each the size of the palm, could neither be detected nor tracked, declared them hazardous for other satellites.

Bengaluru: When the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched 31 satellites using its PSLV rocket on 12 January, it was seen as yet another feather in its packed cap of successful commercial satellite launches.

But weeks later, and for the first time in the history of India’s space programme, controversy struck. Four of the 31 satellites – each the size of the palm of an adult hand – which were from the US, had been launched without safety approvals from an American regulator, it was reported.

ISRO, however, blames the US client for the controversy. ThePrint takes a detailed look at what went wrong and what are the lessons that need to be learnt.

What is standard practice?

In the US, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) first checks to see if a satellite will pose any hazard and will infringe upon someone else’s communication bandwidth, before providing an approval to the satellite manufacturer.

The manufacturer then sends this to the third party that mediates between them and the rocket provider, and to the Department of State if applicable, who in turn send it to the launch vehicle provider.

Swarm Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup which manufactured the four tiny satellites, had filed for a licence request with the FCC but did provide the full documentation to ISRO before the launch. In fact, Swarm’s four “SpaceBEES” were explicitly declared dangerous by the FCC, according to the IEEE Spectrum, which originally reported the story.

The US regulator said that the four satellites were small that they can neither be detected nor tracked. This makes them extremely hazardous to other satellites. Additionally, it is currently impossible to tell how long these satellites will last in orbit before they start losing height and burn up in the atmosphere.

How did the goof-up happen?

Satellites hitching a ride on a foreign rocket don’t always have the full documentation ready well in time before a launch, the Spectrum report says.

“The process is onerous by the nature of regulatory work, made worse by the fact that it’s not set up for the way that secondary customers get launches,” Jenny Barna, director of satellite company Spire Global was quoted to have by Spectrum.

“The Silicon Valley way of doing things is technically pretty iterative. You might not be quite sure what frequencies you will land on… or where your ride is going to come from. We’ve had satellites on the launch pad before the FCC approves it, and then they approve it at the last second,” Barna added.

It is possible that Swarm Technologies, Antrix (ISRO’s commercial arm), and Spaceflight Industries — Swarm’s broker who oversaw their satellites riding on PSLV — were expecting a regular clearance licence and therefore weren’t fussed.

Is Swarm entirely absolved of all blame?

Not really. It turns out Swarm had applied for a licence with FCC back in April of 2017. The FCC then responded to Swarm expressing concern over the small sizes of the SpaceBEES. Their small sizes meant that they couldn’t be detected, so Swarm considered putting both GPS trackers and radar-reflective mirrors on the satellites. But in August 2017, the FCC flatly refused to authorise them.

Swarm had really been looking to launch in August 2017, but ISRO encountered its first failed launch in a decade — and overall third failure in history — of the PSLV, pushing back Swarm’s launch. Then in January of 2018, Swarm applied for another licence, just four days short of the SpaceBEES actually jumping into the rocket and flying.

Rocket payloads have to undergo a period of integration, where they are all fit into the rocket like a jigsaw puzzle. This process takes at least a month, so it is possible that Swarm actually had their satellites at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in August itself, and then continued using the paperwork without communicating to even Spaceflight that they were unauthorised.

In January, the licence was rejected again, as was the application for four follow-up satellites.

Fixing the blame

To an extent, this kind of slipping through the cracks is the fault of everyone involved. Swarm clearly appears to be a suspicious player here. But Spaceflight didn’t ensure they had updated documentation from the FCC and it is as of yet unclear what kind of background checks ISRO/Antrix perform. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also figures into play here because the launch of anything American is to be authorised by them as well.

ISRO and Antrix have clarified that they weren’t responsible for the alleged goof-up. “As per commercial launch services agreement of Antrix, the customer shall be responsible for obtaining all permits, authorisations and notices of non-opposition from all national and international authorities who have jurisdiction over the Customer Spacecraft Mission,” the agencies said in a statement.

“Since this is an internal matter of the US, Antrix has requested its US clients to cross-check with FCC for compliance of regulations before exporting future satellites to India,” the statement read.

This launch was by no means something that could happen only by an Indian launch provider. Laws are so ambiguous that any company could have launched the satellites from any country without fulfilling all requirements.

This was the first case of blatant violation of regulations, but as spaceflight gets cheaper and cheaper, we might be facing more such instances until international regulations are tightened.

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