Baby Steps and Beacon Signals: The Importance of Getting Licensed for Space
Three hundred and sixty-five days
Transforming KIPP from ink on a whiteboard to an orbital data hauler in the span of a single year required overcoming tremendous obstacles. With a team of a few more than a dozen, what we’ve lacked in experience we’ve made up for with a liberal dose of whatever else we could find.
Struggle is inherent to the space industry; the regularity of rocket failures in the well-established launch sector continues to show that space is indeed hard, as they say. Although this remains the case in general, the development of inexpensive and powerful CubeSat platforms over the last decade, have made it considerably easier for newcomers to launch useful technology beyond our atmosphere.
However, as is the case with any private enterprise using a public resource (in our case, space and the radio spectrum), regulation quickly follows. It doesn’t matter if you build the most cost-efficient, power-efficient, space-efficient spacecraft in the most time-efficient manner; before you get to space, you need a license. Well, you actually need several, as it turns out.
For automobile drivers, a license is considered a privilege and is awarded based on the demonstration of being a competent driver who can follow the rules of driving. A space license is similar. An operator must be able to prove (usually via complex simulations and a plethora of paperwork) that they will cooperate with other active spacecraft, give right of way (or what we call priority) when necessary, and ensure that their satellite(s) won’t add an unmanageable amount of space junk to the already crowded orbital environment. On top of this, operators must secure separate licenses for the use of radio frequency bands on both ground stations and satellites.
A radio license is, in essence, permission to use a specific sliver of radio spectrum to send signals through the air. Because the spectrum is shared by everybody, each sliver of it has been carefully allocated by governments and their respective regulators for almost every currently conceivable use of a radio transmission. Operators looking to transmit radio signals with their electronic devices will configure their circuit boards and antennas to operate within these specific frequencies, in alignment with those bits of spectrum allocated by their respective licenses. It is through this process of sending signals through the air that we can transmit information to each other at great distance and speed.
Canada’s space and radio regulatory body – ISED – has been more than accommodating to our company. Part of ISED’s mandate is to foster innovation in Canada, and their support for Kepler has been indispensable when working through the regulatory process and ensuring we comply. Their efforts have afforded us the flexibility to take these first steps toward building a strong and refreshed Canadian presence in space.