The IEEE News article FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites focuses mostly on the intrigue addressed in the question What checks are supposed to be carried out to prevent illegal satellite launches? but I'd like to focus on the technical issues raised.

The SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 spacecraft look like this:

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above: From IEEE "Images: Top: ISRO; Bottom: Swarm Technologies"

These are 1/4 U cubesats, only about 2.8 cm tall.

According to the IEEE article:

he FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

The article goes on to say:

“As an object gets below 1U in size, it gets difficult to track, which means it’s harder to predict if there’s going to be a conjunction with another satellite,” says Marcus Holzinger, an aerospace professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert on orbital safety. “Anything that size impacting at orbital velocities can be catastrophic.”

Swarm Technologies had realized that the small size of its BEEs might be a problem. It installed a GPS device in each satellite that would broadcast its position when requested. It also covered each of the satellite’s four smallest faces with an experimental passive radar reflector developed by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. According to Swarm’s FCC application, this would increase the BEE’s radar profile by a factor of 10.

But the FCC was not buying it. After correspondence back and forth through the summer, the FCC sent Swarm a letter in early December. In it, Anthony Serafini, chief of the FCC’s Experimental Licensing Branch, noted that the radar reflector only operated in a certain frequency band, corresponding to “a small portion” of America’s ground-based Space Surveillance Network. He also worried that GPS data would only be available while the satellite was functional.

The observational tracking spacecraft in Earth orbit relies on measurements from several sources. While still waiting for an answer, the question What would be a “big picture” understanding of how the orbits of Earth satellites are monitored? includes a brief discussion of both radar and optical tracking, and the answer to Are 1U cubesats sufficiently detectable to get at least minimally usefully predictive public TLEs, updated regularly? addresses the already present challenges with fully-1U cubesats.

The SpaceBEEs are going to be extremely difficult to spot visually, but the roughly 1 meter long antenna should have some significant positive impact on their radar cross-section.

I took a look and all four SpaceBEEs are receiving new TLEs about twice daily, as shown below.

This leads to the Question: Are SpaceBEEs actually difficult to track? Are these TLEs generated by including GPS reporting from the spacecraft itself and dowlinked to "SpaceBEE Ground Control", which might fail in the future? Or are they in fact being reliably observed by standard techniques, independent of the functional status of the spacecraft?

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  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Hobbes I've shown remarkable restraint after your reminder, but today I've let an instance of "actually" slip into a title. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 11 '18 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ Very articulate version of a question I would have liked to ask. $\endgroup$ – Saiboogu Mar 11 '18 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Saiboogu any chance now that you can post an answer? I'm trying to improve the answered fraction of my questions, so any help is appreciated. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 20 '18 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ A related question: How does the SpaceBEEs' experimental passive radar reflector work? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 20 '18 at 8:35

I think the answer to this is basically no or at least not any harder than other 1U CubeSats. I base this answer on two lines of argument. Also your data above more or less proves what I am about to say.

First, this quote from Swarm co-founder Sara Spangelo

"All seven SpaceBEE satellites launched to date have been consistently tracked by both the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and LeoLabs. A live tracking link for the first four satellites is here. The SpaceBEEs1–4 have passive Van Atta array radar retro-reflectors, which were developed under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, in order to enhance their trackability in space. Based on our initial results, the SpaceBEEs 1–4 have a larger radar cross-section and are more trackable than other CubeSats. Specifically:

Radar Cross Section area is larger than other CubeSats in similar orbits Orbit accuracy is equal to or better than other CubeSats in similar orbits Swarm satellites are consistently tracked 24/7 and do not pose an orbital debris risk"

Second (and more convincingly), if spaceBEEs had not been trackable in orbit. The FCC would not have given swarm a licence to launch 3 more 1/4U spaceBEEs on SSO-A in December 2018.


  • $\begingroup$ Your logic is inescapable! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 16 at 3:06

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