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The Curious Case of the Rogue Satellites

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“Perfect timing!” Mike Coletta said when he answered the phone. I called him recently to ask about some satellites currently orbiting Earth. Just then, one of them was passing over his home in Colorado.

Coletta has been tracking satellites with radio antennas mounted on his house for years. This spring, he’s on a special mission: He wants to catch the transmissions of “SpaceBees,” four satellites that were launched into space illegally.

Last December, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government agency that oversees satellite launches, explicitly told the California-based maker of these satellites that they couldn’t launch them. They did it anyway the following month, marking the first-known unauthorized launch of a commercial satellite in American history.

This sets a dangerous precedent. Swarm appeared to have good intentions: to bring internet connectivity to people who might benefit from it. Other satellite operators may not—and we may find out too late.

Coletta dug up the SpaceBees’ planned radio frequency in FCC documents. The satellites aren’t supposed to be transmitting. For weeks, he heard nothing. Then last week, he detected a signal as the satellites passed over him. A few days ago, he detected it again. It was sudden and short-lived, “kind of like a click of a microphone,” he said.

The frequency of the signals matches the frequency the SpaceBees were designed to use. But there’s no way to know whether the satellites are the source. For Coletta, that’s part of the fun. He likes the mysteries best. And what a mystery this one is.

The SpaceBee is a prototype satellite from Swarm Technologies, a startup founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California. There is little publicly available information about Swarm. According to Mark Harris, the reporter at IEEE Spectrum who first broke the story about the satellites’ unauthorized launch, the company is in stealth mode, the term for the period of relative secrecy of a budding startup and a popular Silicon Valley strategy. Most of what is known about Swarm comes from a handful of websites and public records, including correspondence between the company and the FCC.

In 2016, Swarm applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation. The company’s pitch was to develop a satellite-based communications network for internet-connected devices, particularly in places without access to wireless networks. “Scientific, shipping, tracking, automotive, agriculture, energy, medical, educational, and other commercial entities will have the ability to return


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