Every satellite–from school bus-sized communications behemoths, to super-secret spy satellites, to tiny CubeSats–has to make it through a gauntlet of documentation and approvals before they ever fly. This is understandable since even something as small as a 1 kilogram CubeSat can pack a mighty wallop after it is accelerated to an orbital velocity of 17,000+ mph!
Satellites and other spacecraft have to be registered under the Registration Convention, launch range safety approvals have to be wrangled, and FAA licensure must be addressed.
Depending on the type of satellite being launched, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets in on the game, too! Earth gazing and other remote sensing satellites, including CubeSats observing the earth, must pass a NOAA licensing process. The good news for CubeSat developers is that NOAA often goes out of its way to accommodate the needs of private satellite developers and operators.
CubeSats are satellites made of one or more 10 cm-a-side units with a mass of a few kilograms. Typically, CubeSats are placed in a low earth orbit and do not have on-board propulsion systems, resulting in an operational life of a few years or less.
CubeSats are becoming more and more prevalent. As Stephen Murphey recently pointed out, you can build one for the price of a nice BMW and build and launch one for the price of a low end Bentley. Sure, not many of us are in the market for a Bentley, but with more than 7,000 copies of Britain’s finest autos sold in 2011, perhaps a few people will forego adding another luxobarge to their automotive stable, opting instead for their own personal satellite!
Who needs a license?
If, as a private U.S. CubeSat operator, you intend to observe or sense the Earth’s surface or the oceans, you need a NOAA license to operate your CubeSat or CubeSat constellation! This includes: providing imaging data to mapping companies, sharing real-time video of the Earth with schools or businesses, taking visible, IR, or UV pictures of the Earth, passive observation of the Earth’s oceans, or actively emitting an electromagnetic signal and recording the reflected signal after it interacts with the Earth. If you are merely doing atmospheric profiling, you might not need a license from NOAA, however, do you due diligence before proceeding without one!
What does the license require?
License holders are required to create and follow a Data Protection Plan (DPP) which will prevent sensitive remote sensing data (e.g., high-resolution pictures of military bases) from falling into the wrong hands. License holders must keep NOAA informed of foreign entities that have received remote sensing data.
NOAA may require that the DPP gives them the ability to exercise “shutter control.” Along NOAA has never exercised this ability, shutter control would allow NOAA or another government agency to prevent a satellite from imaging a sensitive area or force the satellite operator to withhold images from the public for a specified time.
NOAA takes a “trust but verify” approach with its license holders. They conduct audits and on-site inspections at least once a year to ensure that the license conditions are being complied with and any deviations or satellite anomalies are reported.
License holders must also make the remote sensing data they collect available to the Department of the Interior for the National Archive.
NOAA has become increasingly concerned with space debris mitigation. In an effort to avoid the Kessler Syndrome, NOAA must receive and approve a deorbiting plan. Because many CubeSats do not have on-board propulsions systems, this license requirement is of special concern. Depending on the orbit the CubeSat is placed in, it becomes another piece of space junk or it burns up in the atmosphere at the end of its operational life.
How do I get a license?
The first step in getting a license is submitting an Initial Contact Form (ICF). NOAA will then determine if you even need a license. To date, NOAA has received 12 ICFs and found that 7 submitters did not need a license!
If a license is required, the applicant must submit detailed information on their corporate structure, financial information, plans for launch, satellite design and capabilities, and ground operations. Creation of a DPP and deorbiting plan is also required. There is no licensing fee!
NOAA must approve or deny a license application within 120 days, therefore determining one’s need for a license and preparing the application should occur well before a satellite’s planned launch! NOAA has licensed four CubeSat operators and will make an effort to complete the license review process within a shorter timeframe when needed.
Have questions or comments? Shoot me an email or sound off in the comments below!
Special thanks to Matt Kleiman, co-author of The Laws of Spaceflight, for his assistance with this post.