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How the launch of four ‘rogue’ satellites made waves in the spaceflight industry

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If you want to launch a satellite, you’ve got paperwork to fill out

On January 12th, 2018, an Indian PSLV rocket took off en route to space carrying a cluster of 31 satellites into orbit. It was a successful mission: every probe deployed where it needed to be. The only problem? Four of those satellites didn’t have permission to fly from the US government.

These “rogue satellites” were four tiny probes from a Silicon Valley startup called Swarm Technologies. The company didn’t have a license to launch the spacecraft that went up on the flight. All US satellites need approval from the Federal Communications Commission, as the FCC allocates which radio frequencies a company can use to communicate with a spacecraft.

Swarm Technologies had applied for a license but was denied approval. The FCC was worried that the company’s small satellites were too small, which could make them hard to track in space. And if a satellite is difficult to track, then it’s hard to know whether or not the spacecraft is at risk of colliding with another satellite in the near future.

Avoiding collisions is a big priority for satellite operators: when one crash occurs in space, it creates a lot of debris, and that debris can pose new dangers to other satellites. In our latest Verge Science video, we explore how the rules and regulations surrounding satellites are meant to prevent such scenarios from occurring.