The frequency of the signals matches the frequency the SpaceBees were designed to use. But there’s no way to know whether the satellites are the source. For Coletta, that’s part of the fun. He likes the mysteries best. And what a mystery this one is.
The SpaceBee is a prototype satellite from Swarm Technologies, a start-up founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California. There is little publicly available information about Swarm. According to Mark Harris, the reporter at IEEE Spectrum who first broke the story about the satellites’ unauthorized launch, the company is in stealth mode, the term for the period of relative secrecy of a budding start-up and a popular Silicon Valley strategy. Most of what is known about Swarm comes from a handful of websites and public records, including correspondence between the company and the FCC.
In 2016, Swarm applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation. The company’s pitch was to develop a satellite-based communications network for internet-connected devices, particularly in places without access to wireless networks. “Scientific, shipping, tracking, automotive, agriculture, energy, medical, educational, and other commercial entities will have the ability to return their data from anywhere on the planet to support tracking, safe operations, and optimal and timely decision making,” the company explained. In December 2016, the NSF awarded Swarm more than $220,000 as part of a funding program for small businesses.
In April 2017, Swarm submitted an application to the FCC about a fleet of four tiny satellites called BEEs, for Basic Electronic Elements, and two internet-connected ground stations that would be used to transmit data back and forth. An illustration showed the satellites stacked on top of each other like coasters, each measuring 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height. The satellites, Swarm said, would relay encrypted communications with the help of the ground stations. The company said it planned to buy a ride for the satellites on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, India’s rocket launch system.
The FCC came back with bad news. In a letter in December 2017, the agency denied Swarm’s request to launch and operate the satellites, citing safety concerns. According to the FCC, the SpaceBees were too small to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, a military-operated system that catalogs all artificial objects orbiting Earth. If the government can’t track satellites, it can’t protect them from colliding into other satellites. “We cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest,” wrote Anthony Serafini, the FCC’s experimental licensing branch chief.
Swarm submitted an updated application on January 7, 2018. Five days later, India launched a rocket carrying dozens of small satellites from various countries. The launch inventory says four SpaceBees, made in the United States, were on board. Swarm, it appeared, had launched anyway.