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To keep the US competitive, space regulation needs streamlining

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Today, if you want to launch a commercial vehicle (or satellite) with a camera and a radio into space, you have to go to at least three federal agencies to get permission. Within the Department of Transportation, you’ll have to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation for a launch license. Within the Department of Commerce, you’ll have to apply to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for license to operate a camera “capable” of imaging the Earth (even if it is not your intent to do so).

And at the Federal Communications Commission, while you’re applying for permission to operate your radio, the FCC also will adjudicate whether your satellite creates an increased risk of space debris.

{mosads}As the number of space startups and the pace of commercial space launches have increased, this regulatory maze has become a significant challenge to U.S. competitiveness in space.  


Startup launch companies and small satellite businesses have to spend their limited resources and a significant amount of time navigating this multi-agency process. To make things worse, overreach by these agencies can create unnecessary challenges, as seen in three recent examples.

You’re too small to fly

On Dec. 12, 2017, the FCC denied an experimental authorization to an innovative U.S. small startup satellite company because its satellites were too small to be tracked by the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN).

Unfortunately, the company had already packed its four satellites and sent them off to India for a Jan. 12, 2018, launch. With the difficulty of getting a ride and a launch date, the lead times required for shipping satellites to the integrator (especially when the launch provider is overseas) — plus the challenge of jumping multiple regulatory hurdles — it is not surprising that a small company would run afoul of the government.

While the so-called “rogue” launch has received a lot of press attention — and the company should not have launched without FCC authorization — the unasked question in this snafu is, “Why does the FCC need to regulate objects that go away quickly and are not a threat?”

Four tiny cubes in low-Earth orbit with limited orbital lifetimes are far less likely to threaten other satellites than the spent upper stages and other objects that are routinely dumped into higher orbits and persist for decades.

Unfortunately, the FCC’s position on the risk posed by ultra-small “swarming” satellites is more likely to limit U.S. innovation in leading-edge technology than it is to prevent conjunctions between smallsats and other objects.

Going forward, debris risk should focus on large objects that pose a significant threat — and risk assessment determinations should be based on high-fidelity, computer-driven models, not simply on the limitations of the SSN.

GoPros are “remote sensing systems”

In a second example, SpaceX had to turn off the second-stage cameras on the Falcon 9 vehicle and black out the usual webcast from space just before the deployment of 10 civilian Iridium satellites.

This surprise blackout was because of NOAA’s late-notice assertion that the GoPros on the second stage (designed to monitor separation events and payload performance) qualified as a “remote sensing space system” because they were capable of showing pictures of the surface of the Earth.

NOAA’s claim that the ability to show a low-resolution picture of the Earth requires a license is a serious stretch of the remote-sensing regulations in 15 CFR 960.11 (implementing Public Law 111-314) , which were intended to: “preserv[e] essential U.S. national security interests, foreign policy and international obligations.”

To the reasonable observer, showing a civil or commercial satellite deployment with a wide-angle GoPro that can barely distinguish between continents is neither dangerous to U.S. national security nor relevant to our foreign policy goals or international obligations.

And NOAA is a little late to the party. For more than a decade, launch providers routinely have used similar cameras to broadcast satellite deployments (including the recent “Starman in a Roadster”), with the occasional blackout to prevent disclosures barred by International Traffic in Arms Regulation and the U.S. munitions list.

Asking launch providers to obtain remote sensing licenses for GoPros is probably not the best use of either companies’ or NOAA’s time.

Your iPhone needs a license

The third example strikes a little closer to home. Today, if you use your iPhone 8, 8 plus or iPhone X and its built-in capability to receive navigation signals from the Galileo system (the European equivalent of GPS), you will be in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The FCC currently bars legal reception of signals from the European satellite navigation system, Galileo without a license or a waiver. This, despite the fact that current iPhones and high-precision GPS equipment are capable of receiving those same signals — as well as signals from Russian (GLONASS) and Chinese (BeiDou) systems.

In each of these three cases, space regulators have created unnecessary burdens for industry, raised costs and created disincentives for investors and entrepreneurs.

Fortunately, the Trump administration is working to solve these issues. President Trump and Vice President Pence are pushing to apply the Executive Order on Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs to space policy through the National Space Council (NSpC).

The NSpC staff is working on recommendations to reduce regulatory duplication and increasing the overlaps that were approved at the second public NSpC meeting in February. Those recommendations included:

  • streamlining commercial launch regulations at the FAA to deal with high flight rates of reusable rockets;
  • consolidating all space regulatory activities (other than FCC and FAA) in a single office at the Department of Commerce (e.g. remote sensing, satellite servicing, private space facilities, etc.);
  • ensuring the FCC has adequate radio spectrum for space commerce (e.g. new mega broadband constellations as well as traditional geostationary satellites); and
  • reviewing and streamlining space-related export controls.

As a first step, a new Space Policy Directive based on these recommendations would streamline the process of getting innovative U.S. commercial capabilities into space — and make the U.S. space industry more competitive. It may also help space regulators understand that a GoPro is not a “remote sensing system” and that an iPhone should not need a foreign satellite reception license from the FCC.  

 Bill Bruner is CEO of New Frontier Aerospace, a former assistant administrator for Legislative Affairs at NASA and a former Military Fellow in the Office of the Speaker of the House.

Tags Commercial spaceflight Federal Communications Commission outer space Satellite broadcasting Spacecraft Spaceflight

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