In many ways, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has helped reenergize public interest in space science, thanks in no small part to the expert marketing and PR efforts they’ve coupled with their ambitious, but often successful, orbital endeavors. SpaceX’s rocket launches, in particular, have become an online spectacle, with multiple camera views live streaming the event to allow the general public a chance to come along for the ride … except on Friday’s launch.
Nine minutes into the otherwise routine Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, the video feed from the rocket was abruptly cut on an order from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, apparently on the grounds of national security.
Due to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA for short, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage of the second stage just prior to engine shutdown,” SpaceX materials engineer Michael Hammersley said during the launch.
“We’re working with NOAA to address these restrictions in order to hopefully be able to bring you live views from orbit in the future.”
The issue, it would seem, is a recent decision made by the NOAA regarding the cameras SpaceX has been mounting on the second stage of their rockets. According to their ruling, the fact that those cameras often transmit back images that include the earth, they qualify as orbital remote sensing equipment, and therefore require a license to be permitted to operate in the skies above the earth.
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 officials wrote in the statement
“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.”
At first glance, then, SpaceX being forced to shut down their feed could simply be the result of them not going through the appropriate licensing steps to stream their second stage cameras from orbi. SpaceX’s official statement echoed this idea, saying that they intend to secure the license they need soon.
NOAA recently asserted that the cameras on the second stage, which are used for engineering purposes, qualify as a ‘remote sensing space system’, thereby requiring a provisional license so we could fly on time,” SpaceX said. “The license prohibited SpaceX from airing views from the second stage once on orbit. We don’t expect this restriction once we obtain a full license.”
The thing is… the NOAA claims SpaceX did secure the license they needed, but were required to cut the feed based on conditions pertaining to national security.
SpaceX applied and received a license from NOAA that included conditions on their capability to live-stream from space,” NOAA officials stated. “Conditions on Earth imaging to protect national security are common to all licenses for launches with on-orbit capabilities.”
Vague as the wording may be, the official NOAA line regarding SpaceX’s feed from Friday night then wasn’t an issue with securing the license they needed to transmit, but rather must have been the result of one of those “conditions” pertaining to national security. What exactly the NOAA wanted to make sure the public didn’t get to see, however, remains a mystery.
According to SpaceX, they don’t anticipate having to cut the feed on their upcoming Tuesday launch, which will be ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.
Image courtesy of SpaceX