back to article Sneaky satellite launch raises risk of Gravity-style space collision

The space-disaster movie Gravity – where an escalating wave of space debris wipes out a space station and shuttle – now looks like a slightly more plausible scenario. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has pulled permission from Silicon Valley startup Swarm Technologies to launch four satellites into space after what …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Companies that fire rockets into space are expected to have all the related paperwork and approvals locked down tight for pretty obvious reasons.

    That depends whose father in law did you bribe. It is definitely more effective than paperwork in some locations.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That depends whose father in law did you bribe. It is definitely more effective than paperwork in some locations.

      That works in India. Not so much in the US.

      1. raving angry loony

        Works in the USA too. Just the price is higher, usually. Although there's a remarkably large number of Senators for sale at bargain-basement prices.

      2. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

        In the U.S. you need to bribe the son.

        1. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Devil

          "In the U.S. you need to bribe the son wife"

          Fixed it for ya.

  2. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge
    Facepalm

    This space mesh thing

    The TLDR is still pretty long: The Earth is much bigger than you think so you need to liberally sprinkle some zeros on the end of your satellite count. You need thrusters to prevent solar winds from turning your space mesh into a space clump. Radiation glitches on satellites with thrusters is messy. Space agencies don't want your space junk. There are things in orbit that governments don't want you potentially looking at.

  3. Toe Knee

    Regulatory Oversight

    So the FCC has authority over space as well, now?

    1. Martin Summers Silver badge

      Re: Regulatory Oversight

      No, they are communication satellites and because no-one really can tell the rest of the world what they can and can't launch into space, this is perhaps the only way this company can be called out on their inconsiderate behaviour and attitude.

    2. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: Regulatory Oversight

      If you are a US company, the answer is yes regardless of where the launch occurred. Not hard to understand.

      1. Claptrap314 Bronze badge

        Re: Regulatory Oversight

        So if a US company launches a satellite from India, we all expect the company to be subject to US rules. What if they set up a server in India to monitor the launch? Do we expect them to be subject to US rules with respect to the data on the server?

        I still don't get it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Regulatory Oversight

      So the FCC has authority over space as well, now?

      Lucky we have some space bureaucrats. Can't think how we'd have reached LEO, the Moon, Mars and beyond without their help.

    4. Agamemnon

      Re: Regulatory Oversight

      Yeah, seeeee...that's my take-away.

      I've been to none too few launches in my life and last I cecked, FAA was your hurdle.

      FCC is not a relevant entity.

      Concievably, I can make a satellite that radiates Nothing (which Aces's out FCC), gathers some data, looks around, and crashes the spinning rust next to my BBQ on a Saturday Afternoon. (Ok, that might be a bit liberal in design, I admit...beats IP over carrier pidgeon, let's go with it...)

      So how and or why would the FCC care?

      As far as rocketry goes, and the FAA, America is (theoretically) built towards the concept that if it's not explicitly Denied, it's implied you can do what you want. In the sky, this becomes less true. The FAA's charter is: If it implicitly allowed, it's specifically denied. Ultimately, this is a good thing I think.

      However:Americans (in general) have this odd mix of Crazy, and wealth to actually home-brew an ICBM/Low Orbit craft for kicks, as a one-off. It's only a matter of time before "Big Richard" in Texas decides to *successfully* build his own thing and to hell with things like international treaties and let everyone know there's going to be a launch-plume that every satellite is seeing making edgy folk more edgy until he parks his microsats in a bad place and all hell breaks loose.

      Won't be government(s) that screw Richard, tho. It'll be business that owns the CommSats suing him into oblivion. Government will just build a few new keyholes, with all new goodies on an up-rev, and grab a few bucks from the general fund.

      But the US FCC is sociopathic right now, you'll have to forgive us while some of our politicos demonstrate complete delusion.

    5. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Regulatory Oversight

      "So the FCC has authority over space as well, now?"

      I think they just authorize the use of RF to communicate with them. But, effectively, it looks like it, for U.S. companies at least. Yeah I'm not happy about that either. I'd think NASA or even the FAA should have that jurisdiction. Maybe it's time for Con-grab to define the regulatory roles better.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Raid the company's HQ and arrest its officers. Extract the orbital data and then have the DoD destroy them with some air-to-space missiles. Oh wait. We don't have any of those because the US military has been burning through its budget with endless war, and on surface ships and aircraft that will last about 15 minutes in a conflict with a serious adversary. Maybe we should ask the Chinese...

    1. James Ashton
      FAIL

      "have the DoD destroy them with some air-to-space missiles"

      Exploding anti-satellite missiles would be a *much* more serious source of space junk than a few tiny satellites.

    2. Avatar of They
      Black Helicopters

      Lol

      But you forget their secret launch capable and readily reported launches of their own launch platform putting secret satellites in orbit.

      But that is not happening at all. Nothing to see hear.

      There are probably nuclear powered satellites up there, with significant capability for all we know.

  5. Blofeld's Cat
    Alert

    IoT in Spaaaaaaaaaace ...

    "The idea behind the mini-satellites ... is to create an internet-of-things network in outer space.

    Oh well that's all right then. I mean what could possibly go wrong...

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: IoT in Spaaaaaaaaaace ...

      "what could possibly go wrong..."

      the satellites are running Win-10-nic?

      (icon obvious)

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: IoT in Spaaaaaaaaaace ...

        I noticed the downvote on every post I've made already. Looks like the howler monkey fan club is ba-aaack!

    2. Tikimon Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: IoT in Spaaaaaaaaaace ...

      IOT in space? Sounds perfectly ghastly.

      "Hey! It looks like you're fleeing the planet! Would you like directions to the nearest Starbucks?"

  6. ThatOne Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Even in space you're not safe from IoT...

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      In space no-one can hear you scream "Alexa!".

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        In space no-one can hear you scream "Alexa!".

        In space no-one can hear Alexa laughing at you.

  7. danR2

    Don't worry about the FCC

    There's no safety regulation Dotus can't throw a *monkey-wrench into.

    *adjustable spanner, for those across the pond.

  8. Tromos

    Just make them retrieve the errant four before they're allowed to put any more up. If their space team is as good as its cracked up to be, shouldn't be much of a problem for them.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      They should have enough manoeuvring fuel to de-orbit. Otherwise a jolly costly retrieval mission would be interesting to watch.

      Of course if they were to develop a way to capture small objects in orbit that technology could be immensely valuable.

    2. DropBear Silver badge
      Trollface

      Launch elastic but infinitely strong nets of equal mass on exactly opposite orbits, watch them capture the mini-sats, cancel each other's velocity and just fall out of the sky. Easy-peasy...!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How big are these things?

    Article doesn't say...

    1. Def Silver badge

      Re: How big are these things?

      10cm x 10cm x 2.8cm

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: How big are these things?

        Not 9cm by 4cm by 1cm, then? Phew,

        1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

          Re: How big are these things?

          Wouldn't they also need to be black.... really black?

          1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

            Re: How big are these things?

            "Wouldn't they also need to be black.... really black?"

            You mean Vantablack?

            I know, Vantablack is only unreflective in the visible; not radar.

            1. bombastic bob Silver badge
              Devil

              Re: How big are these things?

              "You mean Vantablack?"

              I want a T shirt made out of that, with a caption similar to one I already have: "I'm only wearing Vantablack until they come up with something *DARKER*" - Muahahahahaha!

              1. DropBear Silver badge

                Re: How big are these things?

                Actually, the Vantablack site FAQ covers exactly that question regarding clothing use, and their answer is that by its very nature (forest of tiny tubes) the coating performs exceedingly poorly on anything that isn't a fairly immobile, contact-free surface. As a clothing item, putting it on would already be a huge challenge and it would wear off really fast in use...

  10. Overflowing Stack

    Can't they just use lasers to vapourise them?

    Really big ones

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Can't they just use lasers to vapourise them?

      But how are the sharks expected to see those tiny satellites?

      1. Overflowing Stack

        Re: Can't they just use lasers to vapourise them?

        Binoculars

  11. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. Milton Silver badge

    US only I presume?

    The article speaks of permissions to orbit satellites but this surely applies only to American companies/agencies within its national jurisdiction?

    I wonder how much other tiny junk is up there right now, launched by other nations? And what it's doing? Fiendish Orientals, for example, could pack much mischief into a one-litre box, if they chose.

    I also wonder how much science has gone into assessing upper limits on satellite density? With forthcoming constellations of Internet-of-Shyte due, this seems ... Interesting.

    PS Why not unspool a small piece of foil, to act as attached chaff, so that even a tinysat can be tracked?

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: US only I presume?

      "Why not unspool a small piece of foil, to act as attached chaff, so that even a tinysat can be tracked?"

      I was thinking "inflate like a balloon" but ok, not bad either.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: US only I presume?

      "PS Why not unspool a small piece of foil, to act as attached chaff, so that even a tinysat can be tracked?"

      Unspooling a piece of foil in space is not as easy as it sounds. You'd need considerable drag on the foil (and not on the sat) to slow it down enough to unspool. Unfolding a stowed sail would be easier and yet probably not reliable and durable enough to be an acceptable tracking target.

  13. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    See. This is what happens when you don't keep Chairman Pai "sweet." Or maybe...

    Some of his bigger "friends" have told him they don't like the competition.

    Yes there is a potential "Kessler effect" scenario here and things could go badly TITSUP on a global scale (everything in LEO that is, the GEO comm sats shouldn't be affected too much, I hope).

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I recall an incident

    Where a nuclear test resulted in something being launched into space. Namely the steel cap from the shaft used to contain blast.

    Also recall some mad scientist in the 1950s claiming that one of his models launched itself into space because the retardation mechanism malfunctioned due to electrical interference.

    In fact there are ways, had some ideas recently to build a prototype tentatively called called "NX-0" basically a small car sized single pilot orbital vehicle based on non-mainstream science and reverse engineered technology in the event something bad happens (tm) here on Earth like a supervolcano or other "black swan event".

    It would have enough thrust and supplies to reach lunar orbit, landing might be a bit more tricky but the plan is to send out a distress signal on the H band and wait.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: I recall an incident

      based on non-mainstream science

      That's wishes and rainbows, isn't it?

      1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

        Re: I recall an incident

        @Rich 11

        That's wishes and rainbows, isn't it?

        And it will be piloted by a trained unicorn. This of course is the new post-Brexit UK space programme.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: I recall an incident

          "This of course is the new post-Brexit UK space programme."

          Really? I thought it was the bastard love child of AManFromMars1 and FauxScienceSlayer.

          1. Alistair Silver badge
            Windows

            Re: I recall an incident

            @ John Brown:

            I expect a shipment of brain bleach from you, shortly.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I recall an incident

        More like, if CERN discovers as predicted that antimatter generates weak negative gravity (ie around -3%) and entangled antimatter more so, its possible that the drive I've invented could work.

        If nothing else it should work better than an ion drive even if it needs a small nuclear reactor optimized for 66MeV with spiral rotating "buckets" of specially shaped magnesium-25 enriched sheets to produce sodium-22 or maybe even a fusor with a pyrolytic graphite inner grid and heavy metal target to take advantage of induced fission and dispose of surplus weapons-grade materials.

        Intriguingly even if it works less well than expected the resulting stable neon can be used as fuel for a conventional ion drive or M2P2 hybrid.

        see http://positron.physik.uni-halle.de/poster/ICPA16_Poster_22Na_positron_manufacture.pdf

        To get this into orbit would cause some issues but a possible shortcut has been examined, ie use a hybrid lift engine based on large permanent magnets rotating around contra-rotating disks on a high conductivity landing pad to get it airborne assisted with a central turbofan and then engage the primary drive and rockets at around 25-50 feet once everything is stable, diverting power from the stored kinetic energy in the disks for added stability. This also overcomes any problems with EMI to ground based control systems.

        1. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: I recall an incident

          "if CERN discovers as predicted that antimatter generates weak negative gravity (ie around -3%) and entangled antimatter more so, its possible that the drive I've invented could work."

          well, as one mad scientist to another, you can try kickstarter...

          either that or realize that the energy required to produce enough antimatter is of "stellar" proportions.

      3. rh587 Bronze badge
        Headmaster

        Re: I recall an incident

        > That's wishes and rainbows, isn't it?

        On the contrary, Rainbows are a well understood topic in mainstream science, a function of light refracting through atmospheric water vapour, etc.

        The pot of gold on the other hand... that eludes us.

        1. DropBear Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: I recall an incident

          @rh587 au contraire - we found that gold a long time ago (well ok, not THAT long ago)...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    IoT

    Interstellar of Twats

  16. cavac

    Guess who gets audited my every U.S. government agency this year...

  17. Joerg

    Like they would know about secret military satellites either...

    Like they would know about secret military satellites either... ... have they ever regulated those perhaps? Surely not.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Like they would know about secret military satellites either...

      But the agency that monitors for space objects can officially deny those.

      "Boss, I've detected something that doesn't officially exist"

      "Correct, that doesn't exist"

      "It doesn't exist?"

      "Correct, I'm glad you understand me. Carry on."

    2. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Like they would know about secret military satellites either...

      They work with the military and the FCC (or at least staff within the FCC with clearance) know where the mystery satellites are but not what they can do. The military when moving a satellite need to know that their stuff isn't going to be hit by a commercial satellite not because they care about the commercial satellites, they don't, but they do care about their own stuff and don't want to break it.

      1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

        Re: Like they would know about secret military satellites either...

        "or at least staff within the FCC with clearance"

        Indeed, back in the day, when I worked with a bunch of astronomers and satellite tecchies, I had trouble compiling a version of 'Satellite Toolkit' to install on our Solaris boxes,... it was the early days of the Internet, I put a shout out on a few forums, and I got contacted by a guy that wrote some of it, and he hadn't realised it had been declassified. He was ex-Marine Corps when he contributed. I downloaded my copy from NASA, and it seems at that point, there were two catalogues, one for general distribution, and one that contained everything.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Where?

    The US won't let us play, India will. Where shall we move our corporate registration to? Ooh, that's a hard one!

  19. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    I'm not sure I understand the gripe

    The four comsat launched in this exercise are about the same size as a 1 unit cubesat (10cm cube) of which literally hundreds are on orbit. Per international agreement (United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) these either require deorbit thrusters or an orbital altitude low enough that drag will cause reentry at most 25years after their 3-4 year service life is up. Generally, small SATs below about 600km will decay in that timeframe.

    The problem with cubesat is that you hitch a ride and therefore do not necessarily know at design inception bahere you are going to be. A significant number have ended up in orbits with decay times over a century:

    http://spacenews.com/1-in-5-cubesats-violate-international-orbit-disposal-guidelines/

    So I wonder if the real issue is whether some damned fool put these in meo or geo, thereby burning a perfectly good orbital slot allocation.

    Note that the worst debris problems up there now are due to China scragging a weather sat testing an ASAT system and the Russian satellite bonking into an Iridium sat. Other than that mess most space debris is due to booster upper stages breaking apart, separation debris, etc

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      According to the linked article

      they're 0.25U. So four of them stacked together are the same size and shape as a cubesat. But if you happen to be looking at one side on it'll appear significantly smaller. Which is what matters.

      1. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

        Re: According to the linked article

        Right; thanks for clearing that up. Wondering how tough it would be to make an inflatable corner reflector

  20. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge
    Trollface

    Just get Hoover and Electrolux to build the mother of all vacuum cleaners and put it in orbit....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Mega Maid?

      Just make sure she can't go from suck to blow. Oh, and be careful where you put the self destruct button. Make sure nobody can press it unless they really, really, mean it.

    2. herman Silver badge

      That would be the first real vacuum cleaner.

  21. JaitcH
    WTF?

    What About All The Other 194* Countries Who Might Want Their Own Satellites?

    It's all very well the USA slinging it's junk into space, whether bribing Pai or not, but what of those countries whose budgets can stretch only to smaller devices?

    Satellite coverage of the USA can, in many cases, be achieved by terrestrial fibre cables whereas there are many countries where communications can only be achieved by satellite. Take Republic of Indonesia with 17,504 (officially listed) islands. How else can so many points be covered other than by satellite?

    Anyone listening to entertainment satellite traffic knows how much spectrum and space real estate is wasted. How many people listen to I LOVE LUCY (circa 1951)? Aficionados are well catered to, even today.

    The USA has many space monsters, the size of double-decker buses, two of which are circulating around the Korean peninsula. Perhaps KIM Il-Jun can switch from nuclear to concrete and knock out these things and make room for others with lofty goals.

    *There are more countries but not all are recognised.

    1. Bill Gray

      Re: What About All The Other 194* Countries Who Might Want Their Own Satellites?

      Possibly (another) good argument for improving space surveillance capabilities. It would be good in any case to track the smaller stuff; if your payload is hit by an object a few centimeters across, it can ruin your day quite as thoroughly as one ten centimeters across. Quite aside from non-US companies, being able to launch and track smaller satellites would help everybody.

      Allowing/encouraging smaller payloads would actually improve the space debris problem, in that smaller objects decay faster. (Of course, smaller payloads would also mean you could launch more of them, so the net benefit/drawback might go either way.)

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ajit Pai is killing net neutrality in space.

    Sounds like the sky is about to fall in.

  23. Colin Tree

    space junk

    bullshite

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_debris

    4 more isn't going to make a difference

    "... 29,000 larger (10cm>) debris were estimated to be in orbit ..."

  24. mpentler

    The satellites have already been tracked and added to the database though?

    https://www.n2yo.com/database/?name=spacebee#results

    Saying they're untrackable is misleading.

  25. Spanners Silver badge
    Flame

    None of their business

    The US FCC does not have a say on what can be launched from the US and its colonies. That is the job of NASA and, even, the FAA.

    The FAA does not have any say on what is launched from India. It is hard for US "official" bodies to understand but the rest of the world (over 95% of it then) does not have to follow the whims of extremely dodgy US bureaucrats. Sometimes they may choose to cooperate with the USA. That is their free right.

    As for the FCC. They have proven their irrelevance to their own title by their recent activity of trying to destroy a working internet so that their owning corporations can increase their profits at the expense of everyone else. With that level of incompetence, they need to be kept out of space!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: None of their business

      Satellite orbits are a shared and finite resource, even more so than the frequency spectrum.

      International coordination is key and due to the wavelengths of ground-based tracking radar, objects put into space need to display a minimum cross-section from all angles. While there are volunteer COSPAR tracking stations all over the world, NORAD probably still does most of the routine space debris tracking tasks.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. antimatter

    As I have possibly independently developed a way to generate antimatter in bulk for the drive via some improvisation inspired by efforts at CERN, it might be possible to harness most of it from the solar wind or inner Van Allen belts once in orbit. This avoids many problems, and if the antimatter storage unit can be modified to be refueled in flight (tricky but doable) using a magnetic conduit then it may just work.

    see paper to be released. Would presenting at M3 be a bit too esoteric, as the technology does tangentially use AI for physics optimization tasks.

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