SpaceX Cannot Broadcast Videos From Space Due to an Obsolete Law

Restrictions from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have forced SpaceX officials to end the live video coverage of the rocket’s launch on March 30. SpaceX is working with NOAA to lift these restrictions in order to bring live views from the space in the future.

These restrictions are a reference to a 1992 rule defined in the National and Commercial Space Program Act that requires private space companies that want to broadcast videos and images gathered from space to obtain a license. NOAA suddenly decided to implement this rule for the Falcon 9 launch on March 30. According to NOAA, the cameras on the second stage of SpaceX are considered as a remote sensing space system and so, SpaceX should get a provisional license.

NOAA released a brief statement stating that all launches will be held to the conditions and requirements of the law. SpaceX obtained a license from NOAA that included conditions on its ability to live stream from space. The company has been broadcasting images and videos from space for years without a license. SpaceX said that they were unaware that licenses were needed until it was informed by NOAA. The company quickly applied for a license 4 days before the launch of Iridium. NOAA usually needs 120 days to process such requests, so it is not surprising SpaceX was not given enough time to secure a license. When processing a license request, NOAA has to check on possible security threats posed by the launch.

Industry experts also said that the situation is quite messed up. They blamed government bureaucracy episode and what they think is an obsolete piece of legislation. Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard University astrophysicist, said that the restriction is unreasonable and it is bureaucratic. According to him, the original purpose for licensing was for national security reasons during the 1990s, an era when private entities were beginning to create high-resolution imaging that could contend with spy satellites. Satellites are restricted and regulated by NOAA and other government institutions today through the National and Commercial Space Programs Act. There are also possible privacy reasons for the restriction on high-resolution imaging.

McDowell said that there’s no good reason for limiting imaging from space with a 100-meter ground resolution. The Falcon 9 camera is most likely 10 km or worse. The resolution was high during the first minutes of launch as the rocket was low, but it has not arrived in space yet so most probably the space remote sensing guidelines don’t apply. The government, however, declines to define space properly so it won’t be easy to tell.