An explainer on why SpaceX’s latest Iridium NEXT launch went dark
SpaceX launched 10 Iridium-5 communications satellites March 30 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket—the fifth set in a fleet of 75 total satellites the company plans to send into orbit for the Iridium NEXT constellation. But viewers of the company’s launch live stream were disappointed when, less than 10 minutes into the mission (and before the stage two engine shutdown), the video feed cut to black.
SpaceX and other private space firms routinely stream footage of their launches and in-orbit operations, and the Iridium-5 mission wasn’t deemed risky to national security. Why, then, was the stream cut short?
As explained in a statement from SpaceX, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “asserted that the cameras on the second stage, which are used for engineering purposes, qualify as a ‘remote sensing space system,’ thereby requiring a provisional license.” NOAA, which regulates all private remote sensing spacecraft, must issue licenses for commercial vehicles capable of capturing Earth imagery from orbit, even those equipped with only low-resolution video cameras. SpaceX applied for the license four days before launch, but NOAA was unable to approve it in time.
A statement from NOAA said the licensing rule is sourced from the “National and Commercial Space Program Act” passed in 1992. The Verge reports the restriction was established as a precaution to keep private space companies from capturing sensitive military intelligence and inadvertently revealing it to foreign customers. Since government space missions are not subject to this regulation, SpaceX’s next launch to the International Space Station should not require the license.
It’s a reasonable law, but many are confused why NOAA chose this launch to begin enforcing it. The practice of mounting cameras on unclassified spacecraft has become commonplace or even expected in recent years. None of SpaceX’s previous missions were (knowingly) required to obtain NOAA remote sensing licenses, including earlier Iridium launches.
In an interview with SpaceNews, NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office Director Tahara Dawkins said the responsibility belongs to the companies in question to seek the proper licensing and ensure they are acting within the legal boundaries of space-based commerce. She also said SpaceX approached NOAA about obtaining the license, not the other way around.
The incident follows the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a field test mission that went viral thanks to its novelty payload: Elon Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster. The sports car was equipped with several cameras that live streamed the rocket’s journey to lower Earth orbit for hours after launch, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers across the globe. Many have speculated the Falcon Heavy stream’s popularity drew NOAA’s attention to the otherwise low-profile streaming trend.
Because foreign governments have Earth imaging constellations of their own that don’t fall under U.S. law, this particular rule does not prevent those governments from collecting the same data U.S. systems are capable of. Therefore, many experts speculate the 1992 law is likely to be revisited as Congress and the National Space Council reform and modernize legislation to reflect the current state of the evolving commercial space industry.
Photo Credit: SpaceX
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