SpaceX Falcon 9 camera blackout still seems strange

Last Friday, SpaceX wasn’t able to give its fans a view of the 10 new Iridium satellites it released into orbit from its Falcon 9 upper stage.

Weirdly, company engineers manning the launch webcast blamed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration restrictions for the blackout from the stage, a staple of most SpaceX launches. Well, at least those that don’t involve deploying spy satellites or top secret space planes.

The story behind the missing live feed is a muddy bureaucratic affair. It appears that NOAA has recently decided to start interpreting or enforcing a decades-old law: SpaceX and other commercial space companies must apply for a license to broadcast video from orbit.

“The National and Commercial Space Program Act requires a commercial remote sensing license for companies having the capacity to take an image of Earth while on orbit,” NOAA said in a statement last week. “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.”

What’s odd is that the law in question has been on the books in its current form since at least 2010. SpaceX has been broadcasting video back to Earth from orbit for years without issue or, apparently, license.

The director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office says her staff was not aware of the unlicensed cameras on numerous earlier launches.

“Our office is extremely small, and there’s a lot of things out there that we miss,” CRSRA director Tahara Dawkins said at a public advisory committee meeting Tuesday, according to SpaceNews. “The onus is on the companies to come to us and get a license when needed.”

According to Dawkins, that’s exactly what happened. She says SpaceX approached NOAA about getting a license, not the other way around.

Why this is all happening now after numerous unlicensed live feeds from orbit in recent years remains unclear, unless someone at SpaceX just happened to be perusing the United States Code and realized the company was out of compliance with federal remote-sensing requirements.

I’ve reached out to SpaceX for clarification and will update this post when I receive a response.

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket make its first test…

Others have suggested that all the attention garnered by the launch of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster atop the first Falcon Heavy rocket and the hours-long webcast of Starman in the driver’s seat may have raised the issue of licensing within SpaceX or NOAA.

Whatever the deal was, it didn’t affect SpaceX’s next launch of a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station on Monday. NOAA says this is because that was considered a government mission that SpaceX was carrying out for NASA.

SpaceX says it is working to obtain a full license for its cameras to prevent having to shorten future launch webcasts. Hopefully it all gets worked out before the first Block 5 Falcon 9 launch later this month.

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