When I spoke to Spangelo last September, a few months after the news broke about the unauthorized launch, she said it was a mistake, and that she regretted it. Spangelo was hopeful she could repair her relationship with federal regulators. Now, a year later, that seems to have happened. The Federal Communications Commission fined Swarm $900,000, but also approved future launches. When Spangelo and I met in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, she had been in meetings with FCC officials and was scheduled to meet with the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, the following day.
She planned to show him the prototype, too, especially the gleaming loops at its edges, which matter far more than their decorative appearance suggests. “They are beautiful, aren’t they?” she said.
Nearly everything in orbit around Earth, whether it’s a weather satellite or a bag of tools an astronaut accidentally let go of during a spacewalk, is monitored. A unit within the U.S. Air Force tracks about 23,000 artificial objects bigger than a softball in orbit, an environment that grows more crowded each year. The military warns satellite operators about potential collisions, which could be disastrous. The smaller an object is, the more difficult it is to spot in orbit—and notify someone about before it’s too late. This was the FCC’s concern about Swarm’s satellites, known as SpaceBEEs, for “basic electronic elements.” Officials feared that the satellites, smaller than most miniature satellites already in orbit, couldn’t be reliably tracked. When the FCC fined Swarm, the agency said the company had risked satellite collisions and threatened “critical commercial and government satellite operations.” An investigation by the agency also uncovered “unauthorized” tests Swarm had conducted on the ground before the illegal launch.
Swarm acknowledged its unlawfulness as part of the penalty. The twist is that the SpaceBEEs were eventually found to be trackable in orbit. Those elegant rings at their edges are radar reflectors, and Spangelo said they make each satellite appear 12 to 24 times larger than its actual size to both government and commercial tracking systems.
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Neil Grace, an FCC spokesperson, said he was unable to confirm this assertion, and declined to comment on the agency’s relationship with Swarm today. Spangelo said officials are supportive of her efforts now. “I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I always think if you apologize and you explain what happened, people are human and empathetic, and they will understand,” she said.
That explanation still remains fuzzy.
Spangelo’s story begins the same way it does for many people in her field, with childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut. After studying aerospace engineering, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google as a system engineer. She made it far enough in the selection process for astronauts in Canada, where she is from, that she was submerged in a pool inside a helicopter, flipped upside down, and instructed to escape as part of a test.