The satellite industry is in the midst of an evolution. Technological advances have led to the commercial coming-of-age of small satellites and dramatic improvements in the resolution of satellite imagery, spurring the rise of innovative companies that are transforming the industry from the inside. The number of earth observation and remote sensing satellites is growing, and they are gathering massive amounts of data about what is happening on Earth.
States balance their right to explore and utilize space with the restrictions set out in
internationally agreed-upon legislation. Legally binding international treaties declare that states are responsible for their space activities and for the international registration of their space objects, and must accept liability for damages they cause.
International space law also requires that each state ensure that their national space activities be conducted in accordance with international law, even when these national activities are conducted by non-state actors such as corporations, institutions, universities, and amateurs. Consequently, national governments are keenly interested in regulating, authorizing, licensing, and supervising all space activities that implicate their country on the international level.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Space Liability Convention of 1972, and other treaties from the same era, continue to frame the duties and liabilities of space actors. These treaties have not adapted to recent significant growth in satellite and other space traffic and developments in technology. By their nature, they assume generally that nation states are the principal actors, whilst commercial exploration of space by commercial operators and other private actors is booming.
National regulations addressing rights and responsibilities supplement this international
legal framework. Domestic laws may cover licensing and authorization of domestic space
activities, require waivers of claims between parties (which prohibit them from suing each
other in case of accidents), or require insurance for all entities involved in space activities.
Laws regulating the import, export, and use of advanced technology may also apply.
Commercial space launch entities are proliferating and are increasingly involved in all aspects of U.S.-based space activities, such as transportation of cargo and people into space, orbital
launches to place satellites and other payloads into space, and suborbital launches. There are a growing number of companies offering services to both private entities and government organizations.
Multiple federal agencies regulate the commercial space industry, based on statutory authorities that were enacted separately and have evolved over time. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses commercial launch and reentry vehicles (i.e., rockets and spaceplanes) as well as commercial spaceports. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licenses commercial Earth remote sensing satellites. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses commercial satellite communications. The Departments of Commerce and State license exports of space technology.
FCC. The role of the FCC is to ensure communications and spectrum use in space do not interfere with terrestrial communications or other space-based communications; it also provides requirements for orbital debris mitigation in the licensing process. The FCC is becoming increasingly important as more large satellite constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO) stress spectrum allocations. In some circumstances it has also become the “regulator of last resort” for novel commercial concepts that do not fit neatly into other agencies’ jurisdiction, since nearly all satellite activity requires spectrum. The FCC issues licenses to operators and launch providers for the use of spectrum to communicate with their launch vehicles and satellites, as well as for any other use of spectrum such as ranging and broadcasting.
For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has engaged two private Federal Communications Commission FCC 21-44 companies to take cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS), and companies such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Northrop Grumman have completed numerous successful missions to the ISS.
SpaceX has recently ferried people to the ISS, and Boeing is developing a spacecraft to do the same. Other companies, such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, intend to take private citizens on suborbital flights. These commercial space launch companies are also actively transporting communications satellites into orbit. SpaceX, for example, has conducted over 100 launches.
Several companies, such as Rocket Lab and Astra, are focusing on propelling small satellites into orbit. Bigelow Aerospace plans to deploy a manned space station.
To support these commercial space ventures, entities such as the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and the Houston Airport System have established non-Federal spaceports.
Access to radio spectrum is important for the commercial space launch industry to ensure reliable communications with launch vehicles. But even once launched, a satellite system has work to do to secure spectrum. Under International Telecommunication Union (ITU) rules, a system must transmit signals uninterrupted for at least 90 days to be granted rights to use the relevant spectrum band.
Five frequency bands are commonly used for communications with and tracking of space
launch vehicles: 420-430 MHz, 2025-2110 MHz, 2200-2290 MHz, 2360-2395 MHz, and 5650-5925 MHz. The 420-430 MHz band is used for sending flight termination commands to the launch vehicle, if necessary, during the launch. The flight termination signal link must be extremely reliable to avoid endangering lives from a launch vehicle that has gone astray. The 2025-2110 MHz band has been used during some space launches to send control signals to guide the launch vehicle boosters to a controlled landing so that it may be reused. The 2200-2290 MHz band is used to send telemetry data from the launch vehicle to the controllers on the ground. Telemetry is diagnostic information, transmitted from the launch vehicle to ground controller stations during the flight, which allows the ground controller station to track the performance of the launch vehicle. The 5650-5925 MHz band supports launch vehicle radar tracking. Oftentimes, a transponder is placed on the launch vehicle that transmits a signal in this band in response to the radar tracking signal to allow more accurate tracking of the launch vehicle.
Satellite constellation projects can face obstacles in the form of onerous national regulations and regulatory procedures. The process of applying for approvals for space and ground-based systems and services will often be slow and expensive.
New process for Smallsat
FCC’s Part 25 satellite licensing rules group satellites into two categories for application processing — geostationary-satellite orbit (GSO) systems and non-geostationary-satellite orbit (NGSO) systems. The same categorization reflects in the Commission’s fee structure. As a result, an application for a single commercial NGSO small satellite with a planned two-year mission is subjected to the same application process and fee as an application for an NGSO communications system consisting of hundreds or more satellites to be replenished on a regular basis.
Operators seeking to deploy small satellites may now request streamlined processing of their FCC satellite license applications. The new rules took effect on August 19, 2020, wrapping up the proceeding that commenced nearly two years ago.
The streamlined process reduces application fees from US$471,575 to US$30,000, condenses review periods to better accommodate the short timeline between a small satellite’s design completion and launch, and offers a one-year grace period to post a surety bond. A streamlined processing applicant must, among other things,
- Request authority for fewer than 10 non-geostationary orbit satellites, each weighing no more than 180 kilograms.
- Operate the spacecraft on orbit no longer than six years.
- Use propulsive capabilities, if its space stations will deploy above an orbital altitude of 600 kilometers.
Creating this alternate licensing option will hopefully reduce administrative burdens for the FCC and applicants and further commercial development of space.
FAA. The FAA regulates commercial space transportation to ensure safety of launch and reentry. It does not have the responsibility to regulate U.S. government launches or commercial on-orbit activities; however, it does have the authority for integrating the launch and reentry of both government and commercial systems into the existing air traffic system. Around the time of a launch, the airspace must be restricted to ensure that there are no collisions with airplanes.
NOAA. NOAA regulates space-based remote sensing operations. Prior to the May 2020 release of the Rules on Private Remote Sensing Space Systems, if a system were capable of imaging the Earth, it required a license; now there are exceptions to this rule, including imaging for the purpose of mission assurance. Prior to the release of the May 2020 rules, NOAA had its own debris mitigation guidelines; however, NOAA now defers to the FCC on debris mitigation rules.
Satellite companies often have to deal with export control laws which are designed to prevent the spread of sensitive technologies to foreign actors. There are two sets of regulations: International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR). ITAR is under the jurisdiction of the Department of State and seeks to control items, information, or activities that could be used for military purposes; it operates under the assumption of denial.
EAR is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce and controls items and technologies that could be applicable to commercial or military use. RPO, for example, can include a mix of ITAR and EAR technologies and services. Given that spacecraft rendezvous and docking frequently utilize cameras for the terminal phase, it is possible that some imagery
collected during this phase of a servicing mission could provide satellite design information to the servicer that would fall under export control regulations.
CFR § 25.103
1.5/1.6 GHz Mobile-Satellite Service. Mobile-Satellite Service provided in any portion of the 1525-1559 MHz space-to-Earth band and the 1626.5-1660.5 MHz Earth-to-space band, which are referred to in this rule part as the “1.5/1.6 GHz MSS bands.”
1.6/2.4 GHz Mobile-Satellite Service. A Mobile-Satellite Service that operates in the 1610-1626.5 MHz and 2483.5-2500 MHz bands, or in any portion thereof.
2 GHz Mobile-Satellite Service. A Mobile-Satellite Service that operates in the 2000-2020 MHz and 2180-2200 MHz bands, or in any portion thereof.
17/24 GHz Broadcasting-Satellite Service (17/24 GHz BSS). A radiocommunication service involving transmission from one or more feeder-link earth stations to other earth stations via geostationary satellites, in the 17.3-17.7 GHz (space-to-Earth) (domestic allocation), 17.3-17.8 GHz (space-to-Earth) (international allocation) and 24.75-25.25 GHz (Earth-to-space) bands.
Blanket license. A license for:
(1) Multiple earth stations in the FSS or MSS, or for SDARS terrestrial repeaters, that may be operated anywhere within a geographic area specified in the license; or
(2) For multiple space stations in non-geostationary-orbit.
The Federal Communications Commission said it would begin revising decades-old rules on getting rid of space junk and on other issues such as satellite refueling and inspecting and repairing in-orbit spacecraft.
“We believe the new space age needs new rules,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said after the 4-0 FCC vote, adding that current rules “were largely built for another era.”
She said the FCC needs “to make sure our rules are prepared for the proliferation of satellites in orbit and new activities in our higher altitudes.”
The FCC also plans to look at “new ways to clean up orbital debris. After all, there are thousands of metric tons of junk in space,” Rosenworcel added. The FCC will look at “the potential for orbital debris remediation and removal functions that offer
the prospect of improvement in the orbital debris environment.”
The FCC is asking questions about in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM), which includes things like “repairing and refueling satellites and even assembling whole new systems in orbit,” Rosenworcel said.
The proceeding will look at efforts to transform materials through manufacturing while in space and ISAM spectrum needs.
“The FCC remains the only agency to license virtually every commercial space mission that touches the United States,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said. “With that power comes the responsibility to understand the missions we authorize, and to create an enabling regulatory environment that opens new doors while still protecting against new risks.”
Starks said proceeding “will help us build the record we need to fully understand emerging ISAM technologies, their spectrum requirements (and) their debris implications.”
The FCC said ISAM has “the potential to build entire industries, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, and advance America’s economic, scientific, technological, and national security interests.”
The FCC is already moving to update its satellite rules and previously adopted new rules to help satellite launch companies get access to spectrum for transmissions “from space launch vehicles during pre-launch testing and space
The FCC in November granted an experimental license to NanoRacks LLC for communications with an experimental component attached to the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
vehicle “to demonstrate metal-cutting in space.”
The FCC said the proceeding will what role if any it should play in reviewing “planetary protection plans and implications” for missions.
AWS Ground Station announces Licensing Accelerator
Today satellite operators must navigate complex and rapidly changing national and international requirements in order to launch, operate, and communicate with their satellites. To start, they must gain approval to launch their satellites. Next, they have to apply for spectrum needed to communicate with their spacecraft. In the case of Earth exploration satellites, operators also must secure remote sensing licenses. Finally, they have to coordinate their spectrum and operational needs with the ITU and its 193 members.
All of this requires work with multiple agencies and comprehensive understanding about how all the different licensing application processes work. As a result, customers can find it difficult to accurately forecast how much time is needed to apply for licenses and meet all the requirements, resulting in possible launch and service delivery delays. Additionally, they may have to allocate additional capital budgets to meet licensing requirements and complete applications while ensuring their operations and missions continue on schedule.
AWS is announcing Licensing Accelerator, a new AWS Ground Station feature which provides commercial businesses, space start-ups, and universities access to resources to help them more efficiently secure spectrum licenses required for their operations and missions. Licensing accelerator is free-of-charge to AWS Ground Station customers. AWS Ground Station is a fully managed service that lets customers control satellite communications, process satellite data, and scale their satellite operations. With Licensing Accelerator, AWS Ground Station customers can launch and scale their spacecraft operations faster by leveraging the latest, centrally located information about satellite licensing regulations such as space station licensing, remote sensing licenses, and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) coordination.
The insurance industry offers policies that mitigate the financial implications and risks of a project. An insurance policy for potential risks may be required by law before your satellite is integrated into a launch payload, and even if not legally required, it might be a shrewd risk mitigation strategy.
The high cost of developing, launching, and operating a satellite system should make launch and other types of space insurance a serious consideration for operators. The relative youth of the industry has led to uncertainty and instability in the pricing of premiums, leading some to leave their projects uninsured. There have also been reports of major insurers exiting an under-performing space market, which could place upward pressure on premiums. Prospective operators may need to balance the rush to market against the need for appropriate insurance coverage.