In December, small-satellite company Swarm Technologies Inc. received word from the Federal Communications Commission that its request to launch and operate four tiny satellites was denied.
The agency said in a letter that it denied the application because the satellites — which measured less than 4 inches on one side — were too small to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which is supposed to catalog all man-made objects that orbit the Earth. That would make it hard to ensure the satellites weren't going to hit other spacecraft in orbit, the FCC said.
But according to the FCC, the Menlo Park, Calif., firm apparently went ahead and launched four satellites anyway.
Industry analysts say this may be the first time a company in the U.S. has operated a satellite despite not receiving approval from the FCC. It could be a sign of conflict between government regulatory efforts in space and the onslaught of new small-satellite endeavors, they said.
An FCC spokesman said that the agency was "aware of the situation" with Swarm Technologies and that while it looks into the matter, it has shelved the company's application for permission to conduct another operation related to the tiny satellites.
An email dated March 7 from an FCC official says the agency set the application aside "in order to permit assessment of the impact of the applicant's apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites … on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee."
The news was first reported by engineering and tech news site IEEE Spectrum.
Swarm Technologies did not respond to a request for comment.
The company is led by Chief Executive Sara Spangelo, a former Google employee. It was incorporated in Delaware in May 2015, according to paperwork filed with the California Secretary of State's office. A filing last month listed Swarm Technologies' business as "space networks."
In an FCC filing this month, Swarm Technologies said its tiny communications satellites measured about 4 inches long, 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall.
Like many other new companies in its field, Swarm Technologies' plans center on the use of small satellites for jobs such as Earth imaging or providing broadband internet. Such satellites can be the size of a mini fridge or a loaf of bread.
Companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb have already proposed constellations of hundreds or thousands of small satellites, and analysts have predicted that thousands of satellites could be launched in the next few years.
As these new players get their plans in order, they'll have to file applications with the FCC to get permission to operate their satellites, which could bog down the agency, said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group.
"The FCC budget for overseeing all these applications is going to have to increase," he said. "They're going to have to increase their workforce."
But companies and regulatory agencies will have to find a middle ground, especially since low-Earth orbit is quickly becoming more crowded, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst with Forecast International.
"I think they're going to have to work something out where, yes, you want to move quickly, yes, you want to develop quickly, but you also have to respect the fact that there are other companies and other organizations that are also operating in that environment," he said.