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US-halted satellites ride on Isro

New Delhi: India's space agency two months ago launched four tiny American satellites that had been denied permission to fly into space by US regulators because they are too small to be tracked by America's space surveillance network.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) had ferried into space four 10-cm-sized satellites - Spacebee 1, 2, 3 and 4 - on January 12 under a commercial pact with Swarm Technologies, a US start-up.

But the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had on December 12, 2017, denied Swarm Technologies authorisation to launch the four spacecraft because the US Space Surveillance Network would find it difficult to detect such small satellites. The network catalogues and tracks active and inactive satellites, satellite fragments and space debris that orbit the Earth.

"We cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest," the FCC had said in its letter to Swarm Technologies.

The letter noted that the company had proposed "to deploy and operate 4 spacecraft that are smaller than 10cm in one of their three dimensions." The spacecraft are "therefore below the size threshold at which detection by the Space Surveillance Network can be considered routine".

However, Antrix, Isro's commercial wing, launched the Spacebee satellites on the January 12 PSLV flight that also carried Isro's 710kg Cartosat-2, an Earth-mapping satellite, and 24 other foreign satellites from customers in Canada, Finland, France, South Korea, the UK and the US.

Antrix said on Tuesday that under launch services agreements, foreign customers are responsible for obtaining all permits, authorisations and notices of non-opposition from all national and international authorities that have jurisdiction over the spacecraft.

"Since this is an internal matter of the US, Antrix has requested its US clients to crosscheck with FCC for compliance of regulations before exporting future satellites to India," Antrix said.

A senior Indian official said when foreign customers bring in satellites for launch aboard Isro launch vehicles, it is assumed they have obtained the required export approvals in their origin countries.

"We mainly examine technical specifications required for carrying the satellites aboard the PSLV," the official told The Telegraph. "We just do not have the wherewithal to determine whether they have satisfied all their internal authorisation requirements."

India began to offer commercial space launches in 1999 and the PSLV, Isro's workhorse rocket, has launched so far more than 230 satellites for foreign customers.

"We're hoping this confusion is resolved in the US soon - American satellites are among our biggest market," said a space department official.

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