SpaceX’s Earth views need a license now, probably thanks to the Tesla stunt

On Friday morning, SpaceX was preparing for what should have been an otherwise routine release, sending 10 satellites into the orbit of the long-standing Iridium customer, when the company made a strange announcement. During the pre-mission livestream, a SpaceX employee explained that the company would have to cut the images of the Falcon 9 rocket once the vehicle reached orbit. And the host said that the restrictions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were to blame.

The spectators became confused immediately. SpaceX had cut live broadcasts early, but only for national security reasons. Why NOAA, an agency dedicated to the study of the Earth's climate and oceans, was involved in the launch of commercial communications satellites?

NOAA had recently told the company to obtain a license for the cameras on the rocket, SpaceX said after the launch. The reason? The cameras take video from Earth from orbit, and NOAA regulates Earth images taken from space, thanks to a 26-year-old law. However, this was the first time that SpaceX needed a license for its cameras. SpaceX submitted a license request only four days before launch, but NOAA could not approve the use of the cameras on time. (Reviews can take up to 120 days, says NOAA.) And then there was a blackout when the Falcon 9 reached orbit.

What changed? SpaceX and other rocket companies have been transmitting their launches from orbit for years, and practically all show Earth in the background. Well, it's possible that SpaceX may be targeted by NOAA due to the company's recent Falcon Heavy release and the famous Starman livestream. In February, SpaceX broadcast live footage of Tesla from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk & # 39; s Tesla in space for hours, with Earth featured in the background. It received a lot of attention, and that may have led NOAA to get to SpaceX, which requires the company to get a license for its cameras, according to a report from

However, SpaceX says it did not need to obtain a license from NOAA for its most recent release for NASA, which sent supplies to the International Space Station on Monday. Government launches, like the ones SpaceX does for NASA, are exempt from some of the regulations of a commercial mission. But SpaceX does many commercial missions, as does its rival United Launch Alliance and other launch providers. And it seems that all those releases will need a license from NOAA to be able to broadcast live. "Now that the launch companies are placing video cameras on the stage 2 rockets that reach a state in orbit, all the launches will be carried out according to the requirements of the law and its conditions," NOAA said in a statement. March 30th.

NOAA must issue licenses for any commercial spacecraft that makes "remote sensing" of the Earth, or basically any vehicle that takes pictures or video of the Earth from space, thanks to a law passed by the US government. UU in 1992. At that time, private companies were interested in launching terrestrial image satellites to earn money, but to the US. UU they were worried that they might inadvertently take pictures, say, troop movements abroad, and then sell that data to a foreign government. So a licensing system was established under NOAA to ensure that these companies do not share confidential government information.

Of course, back in 1992, satellite imaging technology was not very advanced and there were not many companies that wanted to do it. Fast forward to today, and new space companies are emerging everywhere to get images of Earth from space. A company called Planet has hundreds of small satellites in orbit mapping the surface of the Earth every day. And companies become increasingly ambitious. Some want to make space-space remote sensing, or use satellites to take pictures of other objects in space. Others want to observe the Earth in infrared light from orbit.

"Originally when the law was put in place, that field was very much in its infancy, and it was a positive step forward to allow that to happen," said Brian Weeden, a space expert at Secure World Foundation, a non-profit organization. For profit specialized in space security, The Verge ] "But in the decade since then, technology has progressed rapidly and there are types of remote sensors that were not foreseen in the law."

Meanwhile, rocket launch transmissions have become very popular and common. In fact, it is strange not to show sequences of a vehicle that is flying into space these days. However, the 1992 law does not really address how to regulate the cameras on the rockets, because that was not foreseen when the law was drafted, says Weeden. Once companies began broadcasting live from their rockets, showing views of Earth from orbit, that may have crossed the threshold into NOAA's regulatory territory. So, it's possible that SpaceX and other commercial rocket companies have needed licenses for the cameras on their rockets all this time, and NOAA is barely noticing.


Screenshot of the launch of Spacerid Iridium-5 before the live broadcast was cut
Image: SpaceX

However, there is still confusion in the livestream saga. NOAA states that SpaceX was the one that contacted the agency to obtain a license, and not the other way around. "It was SpaceX that came to us," said Tahara Dawkins, director of NOAA's Office of Regulatory Affairs for Commercial Remote Sensing at a meeting on Tuesday, according to Space News . "It was not NOAA who approached them and said: 'Hey, stop, you're going to need a license.'" SpaceX does not agree. A company spokesman, speaking in the background, says he only submitted a request after NOAA said the cameras qualified as a "remote sensing space system" and needed a license. (We ask NOAA for further clarification and we will update the story if we hear it.)

Furthermore, neither NOAA nor SpaceX will admit that the launch of Falcon Heavy was what started this chain of events, but Weeden argues that it is the catalyst probable. "Starman probably attracted so much attention that someone at NOAA or someone at SpaceX realized they may have crossed that threshold to start thinking about that license," he says. When asked at the meeting on Tuesday whether SpaceX had violated the law with its transmissions from space, Dawkins of NOAA said "I would not know without specifically looking at what happened," according to

NOAA says it will work with companies to make sure they have the proper license to broadcast from space and that these transmissions do not hinder national security However, Weeden argues that this whole test demonstrates why the laws governing remote sensing need updating. Live Rocket transmissions are usually low resolution and do not provide many details of the Earth. And the argument for protecting national security does not work either, since other countries have put their own satellites of terrestrial images in orbit, and they are not required to obtain licenses from the US. UU "The moment other satellites that are not under US law come up, [the law] it does not really prevent ads from gaining intelligence and only makes it difficult for American industry," says Weeden. "That is the central public policy debate at this time."

And this area of ​​regulation is something that the current administration also tries to simplify. The National Space Council met in February to discuss the reform regulations surrounding the commercial space industry. One recommendation of the meeting was to update the framework for obtaining licenses for rockets and spacecraft. Therefore, there may be some changes in this process soon.

It is not clear when those changes will occur. The next commercial launch of SpaceX is scheduled for the end of April. The company would not say if they had submitted an application to obtain camera licenses for that launch.

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