It's a tale as old as time: a Silicon Valley startup is denied permission by the government to launch satellites, so the startup redesigns the satellites, and then launches them into space before the new designs are approved.
So it's not exactly an old tale, but it could be playing out right now, and the California-based stealth startup Swarm Technologies could be in serious hot water after the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just accused them of launching four unauthorized cubesat satellites in secret. If these accusations are true, it would be the first unauthorized launch of commercial satellites in history.
The original plan, according to documents assembled by IEEE Spectrum, was that Swarm Technologies designed several tiny satellites called "SpaceBees" which they hoped to launch into Earth's orbit to test out a prototype communications system. But due to their small stature, the satellites couldn't be easily tracked and the FCC - which has to approve satellite launches from American companies - declared them to be unsafe. Swarm's application to launch them was rejected.
Following this, it appears that Swarm Technologies did fix up the SpaceBees so they were large enough to be detected in orbit (thus minimizing the risk of satellite collisions), and they submitted a new application to the FCC. That application was still sitting in someone's desk/inbox when a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket took off in India carrying a mapping satellite and several smaller cubesats from other countries.
Four of those small satellites appear to be the remodeled SpaceBees from Swarm Technologies, described as "2-way satellite communications and data relay" and perhaps launched without knowledge that they hadn't been approved yet. The FCC just responded in kind by formally rejecting a launch that Swarm was planning for next month, citing the four unauthorized satellites in space which are now being investigated.
Swarm's future is now unclear, as the SpaceBees served an interesting goal which is now in jeopardy. The company, created by a former alum of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google, was working on an experimental "Internet of things" based communications network, and the SpaceBees were a key part of setting that up.
The satellites are now in the sky, but if Swarm Technologies faces enough consequences for the rogue SpaceBees, the startup could come to an early end.