Aerospace startup Swarm Technologies, which infamously launched four satellites without a federal license in January, has received permission from the Federal Communications Commission to launch a new crop of satellites later this year. The approval comes while the FCC is still deciding whether to take any retaliatory action against Swarm for the unauthorized January launch.

Swarm is planning to launch three new satellites on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California in November. The satellites will travel to orbit alongside nearly 70 other probes as part of a mission called SSO-A, which is the largest ride-share that SpaceX has ever done. The FCC granted Swarm what is known as a Special Temporary Authorization for the upcoming flight. That means this is just a one-time license for Swarm, valid from September 24th, 2018, to March 24th, 2019.

providing low-cost internet connectivity with 100 tiny satellites. Last year, the company sought a license for its first prototype hardware, four tiny probes called the SpaceBEEs. The satellites were smaller than your standard CubeSat, which is just four inches in height, length, and width. The FCC ultimately denied Swarm’s license for the SpaceBEEs, citing that they would be too difficult to track with the US Space Surveillance Network, which is an array of telescopes operated by the US Department of Defense that follow all satellites currently in orbit. Swarm opted to add radar reflectors on the SpaceBEEs to make them easier to pick up, but the FCC said that wasn’t enough.

One of the smaller SpaceBEEs that Swarm launched without a license.
Image: Swarm Technologies

Despite this denial, Swarm Technologies launched the satellites anyway. The four were carried into orbit on top of an Indian PSLV rocket on January 12th, along with more than two dozen other satellites. Over a month later, a report fromIEEE Spectrumconfirmed that the SpaceBEES had flown without a license, marking the first time in history such a scenario had taken place. The FCC opened up an investigation into the incident and is still deciding what kind of punishment — if any — should be administered.

In an interview withThe Atlantic, she said she ultimately thought the company would get approval before the launch, and that she even thought it might still happen after the flight had taken place. “You know, looking back, I definitely am regretful and I view it as a mistake,” Spangelo said. “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.”

In the meantime, the company has been trying to move forward. Over the summer, Swarm filed another application to launch a new satellite trio. Also called the SpaceBEEs, these probes are slightly larger than the unauthorized ones: each is the size of a standard CubeSat. The satellites are meant to test out communication systems with two of Swarm’s ground station locations in California and Georgia, Spangelo tellsThe Verge. The plan is to gather data to see how well everything is working and to determine if future satellites need to be updated.

Though this new license is only for six months, Spangelo says the company plans to submit an extension in order to operate the satellites longer in orbit. She also notes that the new SpaceBEEs are superior to the last ones. “They have been upgraded in design and software,” Spangelo tellsThe Verge. “Swarm is four for four (all of our first four satellites function well), and we expect the same or better performance from these three new satellites.”

An Indian PSLV rocket.
Photo: Indian Space Research Organization

Meanwhile, the FCC isn’t done looking into the January incident. “The investigation by our Enforcement Bureau is still ongoing – the license is issued without prejudice to any enforcement action,” Neil Grace, a spokesperson for the FCC, wrote in an email toThe Verge. In other words, this license doesn’t mean that Swarm won’t suffer some consequences. As for what that punishment might be, it’s still unclear since this is something that the FCC has never had to deal with before.

However, the new license is key paperwork needed for fellow aerospace company Spaceflight, which coordinated the SpaceX SSO-A mission that the new SpaceBEEs will be flying on. Spaceflight, which sets up satellite ride-shares on rockets, organized the original launch that the unlicensed SpaceBEEs flew on. Once it came out that those probes didn’t have approval, Spaceflight vowed to be much more thorough in its vetting process and insisted that it would make sure all of its satellite customers had the proper licenses needed to fly. “I think the customer in that case wasn’t entirely forthcoming with us,” Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch services group, toldThe Vergein August. “We were sort of in a bit of position where we were relying on them for the accuracy of what they were telling us.”

But now, Spaceflight says it is satisfied with the license. A spokesperson for the company tellsThe Vergethat the necessary approvals have been received. As for Swarm, it’s also eager to move forward. “We’re excited to launch in November, and continue building our business at a pace that matches the growing desire for low-cost two-way communications in the US and internationally,” says Spangelo.


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