Launching Rogue Satellites Into Space Was a ‘Mistake’

Sara Spangelo says she isn’t rebellious by nature. So why did she defy federal regulators?

Earth seen from space
NASA / Johnson Space Center

Updated September 7 at 7:36 p.m. ET

In January, Sara Spangelo tuned into a live-stream in California to witness a rocket launch thousands of miles away, on an island along the Indian coast overlooking the Bay of Bengal. A 144-foot-tall launch vehicle, owned and operated by India, sat on the launchpad. As a voice on the stream counted down, a small tangle of orange flames appeared at the rocket’s base and quickly swelled into an enormous fireball, pushing it skyward. The rocket disappeared into the clouds within seconds as it hurtled toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

This was an exciting moment for Spangelo, the CEO of a young start-up called Swarm Technologies. Swarm had secured a spot on the Indian rocket for its product: a set of four small satellites nicknamed SpaceBees. The SpaceBees are prototypes for Swarm’s ambitious plan to provide internet access to areas without it. When the satellites successfully made it into orbit, Spangelo felt “super relieved and excited,” she says.

Two months later, Spangelo received a curt email. It was from the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government agency that regulates all satellite launches by American companies, whether they occur on U.S. soil or elsewhere. The FCC, the message said, wouldn’t review any of Swarm’s applications for future satellite launches until officials figured out what had happened with this one. The agency, it turned out, had denied Swarm’s request to launch the SpaceBees last year. Swarm did it anyway.

An exciting achievement for Spangelo became an unprecedented event in American history. As far as anyone can remember, the launch of the SpaceBees marked the first time a U.S. company had sent a commercial satellite into orbit without permission from federal regulators.

The FCC ordered Swarm to cease any transmissions between the satellites and the company’s ground stations on Earth, and opened an investigation into the launch. The company that helped broker Swarm’s ticket on the Indian rocket system said it wouldn’t have done it if they had known Swarm lacked the proper approval. The unauthorized launch prompted questions about the future of satellite regulation and legislation, and reignited discussion about chronic concerns over the growing number of objects in low-Earth orbit.

For Spangelo, the launch wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

“You know, looking back, I definitely am regretful and I view it as a mistake,” Spangelo told me in a recent interview. “I feel terrible for the confusion and the additional regulation that we may see come. It’s a very difficult situation, and we’ve done everything we can to resolve the issues to move forward positively.”

Spangelo is a former systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google. She has a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and last year participated in astronaut training in Canada, where she was born. She founded Swarm in Palo Alto, California, in 2016.

Through Swarm, Spangelo sought to develop and launch a constellation of at least 100 small satellites. The satellites would form a communications network that would allow internet-connected devices, from tiny sensors to mobile phones, to talk to one another back on Earth. For example, a rural farmer with an internet-connected phone could use the network to receive data from devices placed in crop fields.

In April 2017, Swarm submitted an application to the FCC for a launch license for the satellites that would test this mission: the SpaceBEEs—“Space” for space, “BEEs” for basic electronic elements. The SpaceBEEs look like thick coasters; each measures 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height. The document outlined the proposed satellites’ design and operations, as well as Swarm’s plans to launch them using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, India’s rocket-launch system.

In December 2017, the FCC responded with a denial. The agency said the SpaceBees would be too small to be tracked reliably by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, a military-operated system that catalogs all artificial objects orbiting Earth. Officials seemed to believe this would create a dangerous situation, in which satellite operators might be unable to anticipate and avoid collisions with the SpaceBees. “We cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest,” wrote Anthony Serafini, the FCC’s experimental-licensing-branch chief, in the rejection notice.

But in the intervening months, Swarm had moved forward with launch preparations, hoping that the FCC would approve its license before liftoff, which was scheduled for January. Spangelo said she wanted to wait for the agency’s approval, even as the launch date neared.

“That was totally the intention,” she said. “We were still hopeful that we would get the application in time and be able to operate them.”

When I asked Spangelo why she didn’t stop the launch when the FCC denied Swarm’s application, she said, “Others have been granted applications after launching their satellites, so we were still hopeful at that point.”

The FCC declined to comment on whether the agency has approved applications by companies after they carry out a launch.

The FCC did comment on the investigation of the SpaceBees, which is ongoing. “The enforcement inquiry is still ongoing and I can’t speak to what may or may not happen with that,” Neil Grace, a spokesperson for the agency, said.

Spangelo said the SpaceBees have shown themselves to be easily trackable by the Space Surveillance Network, as well as by LeoLabs, a California-based company that provides orbital data to commercial-satellite operators and others in an effort to prevent collisions.

It’s not clear whether the inquiry will result in disciplinary action against Swarm, and it’s even less clear what the nature of that would be. The agency is in uncharted regulatory territory. A penalty would send a clear message to other commercial-satellite providers, and might result in more stringent application rules down the line. Not issuing a penalty could risk the rise of a nightmare scenario in low-Earth orbit, in which private companies disregard federal regulators. Swarm had philanthropic intentions, but others might not.

Regulatory questions will only become more pressing as greater numbers of U.S. commercial companies produce satellites—and not just a handful of them, but entire constellations. Iridium, based in Virginia, is set to launch this fall the final few of its 66 satellites, which form a network that provides phone and data services. OneWeb, also based in Virginia, wants to launch 882 satellites that would provide internet services to people around the globe. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, in February launched two prototypes of a proposed 12,000-satellite constellation that would do the same.

The ambitions of these and other companies, if successful, will sprinkle scores of satellites into a space already crowded with them. According to the latest numbers from the European Space Agency, there are 1,800 functioning satellites, 4,700 defunct ones, and 29,000 pieces of debris floating around Earth. Since I last wrote about Swarm’s unauthorized launch, just four months ago, the number of functioning satellites has grown by 400.

The rapid growth has made researchers who study space junk increasingly antsy about the potential for collisions between satellites, which are rare but not impossible. In 2009, an Iridium satellite and a Russian one smashed into each other and were destroyed. The impact produced hundreds of pieces of debris. Perhaps in the future, humans will be able to launch spacecraft capable of unfurling nets to capture debris and return it to the ground. Companies with debris-clearing goals do exist, but they’re still only raising money, and the technology is years away. The only reliable garbage collector in low-Earth orbit is Earth itself; eventually, satellites without any propulsion systems, including the SpaceBees, will succumb to the planet’s gravity, fall into the atmosphere, and burn up. According to information Swarm provided to the FCC, the SpaceBees are expected to fall back down to Earth in less than eight years.

In March, after the FCC learned of Swarm’s unauthorized launch, Spangelo flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with agency officials. I asked her if they were angry.

“No, they weren’t angry,” Spangelo said. “It was a productive, professional meeting, and [there] has been a series of meetings since.”

She was overwhelmed by the intensity of the media reports about the launch. “It was difficult to watch, but I’m really proud of how the team has recovered and how we’ve regained trust, and [of] our good relationship with the FCC,” she said.

In July, Spangelo applied for “special temporary authority” at the FCC, asking the agency for permission for Swarm to activate the SpaceBees and communicate with them. In late August, the FCC approved her request. “You can see that the purpose is very specific: limited communications with the SpaceBEE satellites for the sole purpose of collecting orbital and tracking data,” said Grace, the FCC spokesperson. Swarm is now allowed to operate the SpaceBees until February 2019. Spangelo said the satellites will begin transmitting sometime this month.

Spangelo appears to have taken this small reprieve as a blessing to move forward. Last week, she published a post on Medium that marked Swarm’s emergence from stealth mode, the Silicon Valley term for the cocoon period when start-ups spend some time gestating ideas and lining up investors. “It’s been an unbelievably challenging and rewarding experience growing Swarm so far,” she wrote. “We can’t wait to continue working toward our vision of providing affordable data services to every device and person on the planet.”

Swarm has two pending applications with the FCC for future launch satellites. Their fate rests with regulatory officials, and Spangelo is playing by the rules this time. She won’t break them again.

But because she had, I had to ask: Did she feel rebellious, when her four tiny satellites soared into the sky, unbeknownst to important people on the ground?

“No, I’m actually quite not rebellious at all,” she said. “I don’t even have a speeding ticket.”