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FCC Releases Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Small Satellites


The FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on April 17, seeking comment on proposals to streamline its rules regarding the deployment of “small satellites.” This would include small spacecraft put into orbit for Amateur Radio purposes, as well as small satellites launched by non-Amateur Radio entities, such as universities, but using Amateur Radio spectrum. The NPRM primarily addresses satellites launched by the commercial sector, however.

“These types of satellites, which have relatively short duration missions, have been advancing scientific research and are increasingly being used for commercial endeavors such as gathering Earth-observation data,” the FCC pointed out in its NPRM

Until now, the FCC has not defined spacecraft categorized as “small satellites.” An International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) Report focused on satellites having a mass of less than 10 kilograms with a typical mission duration as less than 3 years and deployed in low-Earth orbit (LEO), which would include most CubeSats. The FCC NPRM aims, in part, to further refine the definition of a small satellite. 

The FCC has authorized small satellites as commercial operations under Part 25 of its rules, as experimental operations — including scientific and research missions for purposes of experimentation, product development, and market trials; under Part 5 Experimental FCC rules, and as Amateur Radio satellites under Part 97. In its wide-ranging NPRM, the FCC points out that the “increasingly commercial nature of small satellite missions” makes many unsuitable for Part 5 Experimental licensing, but that obtaining a Part 25 commercial authorization “can be challenging for some small satellite applicants because of the costs and timelines involved.”

In any case, FCC authorization is required prior to launch, and ITU Radio Regulations require that no transmitting station may be established or operated by a private person or by any enterprise without a license by or on behalf of the government of the country to which the station in question is subject. This would include spacecraft built in the US but launched in another country.

“Because the type of operations that qualify as Amateur are narrowly defined, an Amateur Satellite authorization will not be appropriate for many small satellite operations,” the FCC NPRM notes. “Commission staff may also request a document describing the mission of the satellite, in order to facilitate review and verify eligibility for operations in the Amateur Service,” the NPRM continues.

The FCC notes that the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) “will only coordinate a non-Amateur satellite, if an administration directs in writing that it be operated in an Amateur-Satellite band under an experimental or other non-Amateur license.”

The NPRM does not propose any specific Part 97 Amateur/Amateur-Satellite Service rule changes, but some more general proposals could affect future authorizations under the Amateur Service. For example, the FCC is proposing that "all applicants seeking to be licensed under the streamlined small satellite process also certify that their satellites will be no smaller than 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters, to ensure that the satellite will be trackable as a space object," the NPRM said. “This size is consistent with the CubeSat specification.” This subject recently arose in connection with the January launch of tiny, so-called SpaceBEEs by Swarm Technologies, which the FCC said it had not authorized.

Comments on the FCC NPRM will be invited 45 days following publication in The Federal Register. ARRL is planning to file comments.




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