The Satellites Were Never Supposed to Launch

Two years after illegally launching tiny satellites into orbit, a start-up is trying to convince regulators it’s going to play by the rules.

Sara Spangelo keeps the satellite inside a small case, nestled in dark foam, like precious jewelry. The satellite, about the size of a stack of coasters, is black with gold accents. A delicate pattern of circles adorns all four sides. They look like wedding bands.

“It’s just a mock-up, so don’t worry if you drop it,” Spangelo told me recently as I turned the little satellite over in my hands.

Spangelo is the head of Swarm Technologies, the space start-up where this prototype was made. The real thing is heavier, packed with a lithium-ion battery and wrapped in an antenna designed to unfurl in space. Swarm wants to launch 150 of them to provide internet access to remote places around the world.

Four of Swarm’s satellites reached orbit nearly two years ago. But they were never supposed to leave Earth.

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Swarm had asked federal regulators for permission to launch and operate in space, as all American companies must do. Its application was rejected. The satellites launched anyway. When they crossed the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere, Spangelo instantly became a space outlaw.

The case of the rogue satellites was a first in the United States. The parameters of what can and can’t be launched into orbit have certainly expanded in the past decade as more commercial companies have entered the industry (see: Elon Musk’s red convertible Tesla). But people usually have the proper documentation before a rocket takes off.

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.”

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.

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.

She founded Swarm in 2016. “I wanted to start my own thing so that we could move faster … and actually have an impact on the world in a relatively short amount of time,” she told me. She envisioned a loose exoskeleton around the planet, allowing internet-connected devices, from tiny sensors to phones, to communicate with one another back on the ground.

A year later, four satellites were perched atop a rocket operated by the Indian government, which sells rides to space.

Spangelo declined to explain why she let the satellites launch. She has previously said she still held out hope that Swarm would get the FCC’s permission in time, and that other companies had been granted approval after the fact. (The agency, for its part, declined to confirm that claim.)

Nine SpaceBees are in orbit now, including the original four interlopers. The newest satelliteslarger in size, with some technology upgradesflew with explicit permission from regulators, but under experimental licenses. For now, Swarm employees exchange basic signals with the SpaceBEEs to check up on their performance. Spangelo said she has applied for a license from the FCC that would allow Swarm to operate its constellation of satellites commercially. The next batch, Spangelo said, will have technology capable of reducing their altitude, which could help avoid collisions, but not the kind of propulsion system that would allow them to quickly maneuver away.

Spangelo has already lined up several customers, from car manufacturers to agriculture start-ups, and they’ve submitted glowing letters of support to the FCC, in an apparent attempt to convince regulators that Swarm is going to play by the rules. Swarm, based in Mountain View, California, now has a small office in Washington, D.C., with a compliance officer. These efforts, including Spangelo’s meeting with the chairman, seem to scream, We’re aboveboard now, so let us be in orbit.

The satellite industry increasingly exists near the edge of regulation. There are more miniature satellites in orbit now than ever before, and more are on their way. Satellite companies now have their pick of rocket providers, in the U.S. and abroad, which adds another complicating layer to proper oversight. For Spangelo, a happy ending to this saga seems within reach. But a tale of redemption might set an uncomfortable precedent of the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” variety, the kind that space experts and historians warned of last year when the SpaceBEEs first made headlines. Especially if a company can easily recover from an almost million-dollar reprimand, as Swarm, which has raised $28 million in the past few years, could. Regulation is slow to adapt, the lament of the innovator goes, and few industries experience that crawl as acutely as private space exploration. A fine might seem a small price to pay.