by Douglas Messier
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a license to Swarm Technologies to operate a non-voice communications satellite constellation composed of 150 satellites smaller than an 1U CubeSat.
“Over 20 entities filed letters in support of granting Swarm’s application. These entities plan to utilize Swarm’s network to provide a variety of communications services in support of agribusiness, transportation, and academic and scientific research,” the FCC said in its memorandum approving the application.
A Swarm spacecraft measures only 11 x 11 x .2.8 cm (4.3 x 4.3 x 1.1 in) excluding its deployed antenna and weighs a mere 0.31 to 0.45 kg (0.68 to 0.99 lb) . That is about one quarter of the size of an 1U CubeSat that measures 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm (3.94 x 3.94 x 3.94 in) and weighs about 1.3 kg (2.87 lb).
Swarm’s constellation will use very high frequency (VHF) bands to provide these services from operational altitudes of 300-550 km (186-311 miles) and orbital inclinations ranging from equatorial equatorial to polar.
“The total number of satellites deployed during the license term, including technically identical replacement satellites deployed pursuant to 47 CFR § 25.113(i), must not exceed 600,” the memo stated.
“Swarm must launch 50 percent of the maximum number of proposed space stations, place them in the assigned orbits, and operate them in accordance with this authorization no later than October 17, 2025, and must launch the remaining space stations necessary to complete its authorized service constellation, place them in their assigned orbits, and operate them in accordance with the authorization no later than October 17, 2028,” the document added.
In approving the application, the FCC rejected a protest from Orbcomm that Swarm’s spacecraft would interfere with the operation of its own satellite constellation. SpaceX also expressed concerns over how Swarm would mitigate orbital debris for its very small satellites.
ORBCOMM alleged that Swarm’s proposal does not conform to the FCC’s rules for non-voice, non-geostationary mobile satellite services.
“In addition, ORBCOMM claims that Swarm has made no effort to coordinate its system and will interfere with ORBCOMM’s system,” the memorandum stated. “ORBCOMM also asserts that it has primary interference protection rights throughout the entire 148-150.05 MHz band, and therefore Swarm’s claim that it will not be sharing any frequencies with ORBCOMM is erroneous….
“In its response, Swarm reiterates that it has applied to use only those sub-bands where ORBCOMM has secondary rights, not those portions of the 148-150.05 MHz band where ORBCOMM is assigned on a primary basis,” the document added. “Consequently, ORBCOMM has no basis to claim interference protection rights across the entire band, or require that Swarm use a particular interference avoidance technology that was developed for systems in the second processing round, over 25 years ago.”
SpaceX, which is launching the Starlink constellation to provide satellite broadband services, requested that Swarm provide more detailed risk analysis on orbital debris.
SpaceX claimed Swarm’s system poses a risk to the International Space Station and failed to take into account the size of the satellite’s antenna.
Elon Musk’s company also requested that Swarm’s authorization should be conditioned to conform with future FCC rules on orbital debris mitigation.
“In response, Swarm submitted supplemental materials to address these concerns, including an analysis accounting for deployed antennas,” the memo stated. “Swarm also committed to comply with future rulemakings, and to coordinate operations with the ISS and other approved operators.
“We find that Swarm has taken the appropriate steps to address
SpaceX’s concerns, and condition Swarm’s application on compliance with the outcome of the Commission’ Orbital Debris proceeding,” the commission added.
In December 2018, the FCC leveled a $900,000 fine against Swarm for the unauthorized launch of four prototype SpaceBee satellites aboard an Indian PSLV rocket. The FCC had rejected Swarm’s application due to concern about being able to track the small satellites and possible collisions with other spacecraft.
Despite the rejection, Swarm launched the satellites on the Indian booster in January 2018 as a secondary payload.