I have read about the space law, international and legal responsibility of the companies and countries involved and I must say it is complex, not to say scary. I can't imagine the lawyers' costs prior to launching a new mission.

I still find it very theoretical and I can't help thinking that it has to be somewhat simpler otherwise we wouldn't have such a large number of new cubesat experiments being launched.

I was hoping someone with practical experience of launching a cubesat could shed some light on what is really required, ballpark figures on how much for legal fees, etc... basically all the paperwork involved :(


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    $\begingroup$ I almost "corrected" your title to "fine points" but then realize you really do mean to refer to the "fine prints" ;-) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 9 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ It may sound glib but the right answer is "it depends on your country". In the US you need an FCC license to launch and to transmit, and you need a NOAA license if you plan to image the earth in any way. You then sign a contract with a launch provider or aggregator. Your organization's lawyers may want you to have additional things like insurance. $\endgroup$ – Carlos N Feb 27 at 15:15

The truth is, it really depends on what you are doing. Generally speaking, the hardest part is getting authorization for the frequency allocation. The FAA also is involved, but they will be more involved with the rocket, and usually don't care too much so long as you don't use materials like tungsten that melt at really high temperatures.

There are basically 3 ways you can license a cubesat:

  1. Amateur Radio- These are free, and only require a coordination. The entity that does that is IARU, they have outlined the steps, and generally speaking this isn't difficult to do.
  2. Experimental Radio- These are for non-amateur projects that are one off. A good example is the Planetary Society's Lightsail project. The FCC has released a plan for frequency allocation in the US. These are relatively easy to get, and low cost.
  3. Larger scale projects. These are similar to the experimental permits, but on a much larger scale. This is the same as for small satellites in general. Usually this will require a month or two of a dedicated lawyer's time to get it, but it isn't really going to be a huge issue.

Bottom line, commercial licenses require more time, money, and expense, while amateur projects can be done at a much lower cost.

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    $\begingroup$ May also point out that if you plan on taking imagery of Earth and you operate assets in the US, you need a permit from NOAA for that. $\endgroup$ – Tristan May 3 at 17:47

NASA's page on the CubeSat Launch Initiative is full of that kind of information.


The PDF covers what you need for a NASA launch, and it will be similar for anyone else in the US. One piece of paper not mentioned yet is the Orbital Debris Assessment Report, which is to ensure that you don't create a hazard for other users. That will include an inventory of the materials used in your CubeSat--for instance, they want to know that you're not using chunks of tungsten that could survive reentry and hit the ground. And if you're going to be looking at the Earth, you must apply to NOAA for a remote sensing license, like Carlos mentioned.

There is also paperwork that is not regulatory, but that the launcher may want. Like environmental testing. And they may have limits regarding thrusters or power supplies--they get nervous when they're putting up CubeSats that could blow up.

When you've chosen a launcher you'll be working with a mission integrator who will take you through the process, so lawyers shouldn't be needed.


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