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SpaceX can't broadcast Earth images because of a murky license

Out of nowhere, Elon Musk's rocket company is now required to obtain a license to broadcast from space.

No one got to enjoy the view from the top of this SpaceX rocket.

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 staffing 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 in a new way. The agency says 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.

Making things even stranger is that a close reading of the relevant federal regulations would seem to indicate that SpaceX's video camera should be exempted from the licensing requirement. The section of US code in question, the part that govern's NOAA's licensing of commercial systems, reads: "Small, hand-held cameras shall not be considered remote sensing space systems."

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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.

I reached out to SpaceX for comment, but the company just reiterated what was stated during the Friday webcast, emphasizing that it's working with NOAA to be able to have live views from orbit in the future.

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's 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.

Originally published April 5 at 9:55 p.m. PT.
Update April 6 at 8:27 a.m. PT:  Added response from SpaceX and reference to the relevant section of the US Code.

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