NOAA explains restriction on SpaceX launch webcast

A cutoff of live video on a recent SpaceX launch reflects new awareness by regulators of the imaging capabilities of onboard cameras on launch vehicles and requirements for companies to adhere to laws that some in the industry believe are outdated.

During the March 30 launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9, SpaceX cut off the live video from the rocket’s second stage nine minutes after liftoff. The company cited “restrictions” imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for terminating the live feed.

“Due to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage of the second stage just prior to engine shutdown,” said Michael Hammersley, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the launch webcast. “We’re working with NOAA to address these restrictions in order to hopefully be able to bring you live views from orbit in the future.”

In a statement later March 30, NOAA invoked federal law that requires any commercial remote sensing system capable of taking images of the Earth from orbit be licensed by the agency. “Now that launch companies are putting video cameras on stage 2 rockets that reach an on-orbit status, all such launches will be held to the requirements of the law and its conditions,” NOAA stated. At the time of the cutoff on the March 30 launch, the second stage had nearly reached orbit.

In the case of that launch, SpaceX did submit a license application to NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office. However, the company did so just days before the launch.

“The SpaceX application was received by our office four days before launch,” said Tahara Dawkins, director of CRSRA, at an April 3 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing here. She noted that, under law, the office has up to 120 days to make a ruling on a license application but undertook an “extremely expedited review” that was completed in three days, working very closely with SpaceX, an effort she called “unprecedented.”

In order to get a license approved in some form in time for the launch, Dawkins said the government agreed to temporarily waive a number of requirements for the license. That, however, did not extend to permitting live public video from orbit.

“With additional time to review and evaluate and, if necessary, elevate, we could have worked it out a little bit more and maybe allowed for live streaming,” she said. For future launches, “we’re hoping to get a better review of what that livestreaming is, and what potential risk to national security each one will have.”

Part of the licensing review for commercial remote sensing systems involves a check of any national security implications of that system, but it’s not clear what issues an onboard camera system, whose views of the Earth are typically low resolution and often obscured by the rocket itself, might pose.

Dawkins said that no previous SpaceX launches had NOAA commercial remote sensing licenses, even though many have flown onboard cameras, including several previous Iridium missions. An April 2 launch of a Falcon 9 from Florida carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft had no such restrictions, she said, because that was considered a government mission. While the spacecraft is performing a mission under contract to NASA, the launch itself was considered commercial and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

NOAA was not aware of the previous launches that featured onboard cameras. “Our office is extremely small, and there’s a lot of things out there that we miss,” she said. “The onus is on the companies to come to us and get a license when needed.”

Dawkins also said that SpaceX approached NOAA regarding a remote sensing license for the launch, and not the other way around. “It was SpaceX that came to us,” she said. “It wasn’t NOAA that went out to them and said, ‘Hey, stop, you’re going to need a license.’”

A SpaceX spokesperson referred SpaceNews to the comments from the March 30 webcast about the restrictions and the company’s efforts to provide live video on future launches. A company source, speaking on background, said SpaceX filed the license application after NOAA asserted the upper stage cameras, whose primary purpose is to collect engineering data, qualify as a remote sensing space system under law, thereby requiring a license.

The incident has puzzled many in the industry. While Dawkins said NOAA was not aware of previous circumstances of live video from launches, it has become relatively commonplace, by SpaceX and other launch providers, to add cameras to upper stages of launch vehicles to provide live video up through payload separation.

Some in the industry speculate a tipping point may have come with the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. That launch placed a Tesla Roadster sports car in orbit, attached to the rocket’s upper stage and equipped with several cameras. Those cameras provided live views of the car, with the Earth often in the background, for several hours after launch. The live feed attracted at times hundreds of thousands of viewers.

NOAA did not directly address at the committee meeting any link between the Falcon Heavy launch and the new scrutiny regarding remote sensing licensing of upper stages. Dawkins, specifically asked about that launch, confirmed it did not have a NOAA license.

This also comes as both industry and some in government seek to reform commercial remote sensing regulations, arguing that current law, which dates back a quarter-century, has not kept up with changes in the industry. NOAA does exempt some cameras from the law, including star trackers and small handheld cameras.

Last June, the House Science Committee favorably reported the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, whose provisions include reforms to the commercial remote sensing system. The bill would allow the Secretary of Commerce to waive licensing of remote sensing systems deemed “ancillary to the primary design purpose” of the space object or which are “too trivial” to require a national security determination. That bill is still pending consideration by the full House.

For now, NOAA does not have the ability to waive the need for a license, including for upper stages with onboard cameras. “The law doesn’t provide for a waiver,” said Glenn Tallia, NOAA general counsel, at the meeting. “Any system that is basically a private remote sensing space system requires a license.”

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