It was only a matter of time until spacetech startup Swarm Technologies had to face the music.
In December 2017, the company asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to launch its four small “SpaceBEE” satellites into space. It never got that authorization — but launched them anyway on January 12, 2018 aboard the Indian rocket PSLV-C40.
And now we know what happens when a space startup goes rogue. Yesterday, Swarm was slapped with a substantial $900,000 fine as part of a settlement with the FCC for an “unauthorized satellite launch” according to official filings.
The FCC was already hot on the company’s heels. It had reportedly been investigating Swarm since at least March.
The satellites launched to serve as a global communications gateway for “internet of things” applications. “By providing connectivity to people and devices in remote regions, Swarm makes data accessible to everyone, everywhere on earth,” Swarm’s official website reads.
Back in March, Quartz suggested that Swarm’s launch was “likely the first time a private organization has launched spacecraft without the explicit approval of any government.”
FCC commissioner Michael O’Reilly said the fine might not be enough to “deter future behavior,” but that the hope was that enough “negative press coverage” would prevent others from doing the same according to an official statement.
The unauthorized launch was such a controversial move that even Swarm’s CEO came to regret. In September, CEO Sara Spangelo said that launching the satellites anyway was “a mistake” in an interview with The Atlantic.
“I feel terrible for the confusion and the additional regulation that we may see come,” she said. “It’s a very difficult situation, and we’ve done everything we can to resolve the issues to move forward positively.”
Regardless of the investigation and subsequent settlement, the four SpaceBEE satellites are now in orbit, oblivious to the drama they’ve caused back on Earth.
READ MORE: A space startup was just hit with a $900,000 fine for illegally launching four tiny satellites [MIT Technology Review]