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There are warnings of "round cowboy-like behavior" from private companies joining the space race after an American tech start-up was hit with a historic fine last month to launch unauthorized satellites.
- Start-up denied permission for satellite tracking issues
- Low-Earth lane still "wild west" with little regulation, experts warn
- Concern over NASA's stoking commercial interest in space research
Swarm Technologies was fined $ US900,000 ($ 1.28 million) on December 21 to launch four mini-satellites in January 2018, after expressly denying US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Ability to Track Ability them.
A study found that Swarm used an unaffiliated launch company in India to circumvent the restrictions, but was caught when the satellites sent signals back to a station in Georgia in the United States.
"We will aggressively enforce the FCC's requirement that companies seek FCC approval prior to deploying and operating communications satellites and ground stations," says FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold.
"These important commitments protect other operators from radio interference and collisions, making room for a safer place to operate."
Swarm's website says it strives to create "the world's lowest satellite network".
It is believed to be the first US company to launch unauthorized satellites, which were largely the size of smartphones, and the fine is historical in the example it sets.
The satellites Swam launched is largely the size of smartphones. (Available: Swarm Technologies)
The size of the penalty imposed is probably not sufficient to deter future behavior, but the negative press coverage is likely to prevent this company and others from trying to do so again, says FCC Commissioner Michael O & # 39; Rielly.
In addition to the fine, Swarm will also be subjected to more stringent FCC monitoring and a requirement to submit preliminary communications to the Commission.
& # 39; Runaway cowboys pose real risks & # 39;
The historic launch and fine come as a growing number of private companies seem to make money from space exploration.
NASA has recently offered a giant $ US2.6 billion ($ 3.7 billion) carrot to private companies to bring science and technology to the moon.
Astrophysicist Alan Duffy said NASA had played a role in promoting this movement away from purely government-initiated space research.
"At some level, NASA released a genius from a bottle," he said.
"They intentionally try to free up commercial activity in space, get businesses in and do what previous governments tried and hopefully do better, cheaper, and faster.
"The problem is that you also get a lot of the round start of the Silicon Valley culture too. And the bottom line is that you break or bend rules.
"The land of the land at this time is the wild west. There are little or no rules."
A number of private companies have made significant progress in space research in recent years, especially Elon Musk's SpaceX, which successfully launched a US orbiting military satellite last month.
However, Associate Professor Duffy said there were remarkable differences in their process than other start-ups.
"For this whole idea that the company was released, they were actually in hand with NASA," he said.
"They are using NASA engineers and are constantly working with NASA's safety regulations."
Both the FCC and Associate Professor Duffy said regulating private companies was crucial because of the real risks posed by unauthorized or irreversible satellites.
"If you don't stop this round of cowboy-like behavior now, somebody will get hurt sooner or later," he said.
"There is a reason why we should control the communication … if a satellite is taken out and the image that they trust for forest fire management, for example, is lost, there are real consequences.
"Just because there aren't many people up there doesn't mean you can't hurt people in here."
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