Following up on some of our most popular posts here on the Launch Pad, a few more words on regulation, specifically with regard to the Google Lunar X PRIZE.
After we ran a series of posts on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's potential regulation of some Google Lunar X PRIZE teams, I received the following note from the Satellite Activities Branch of the International & Interagency Affairs Office at NOAA:
In reviewing public comments/reactions on [those posts], there seems to be some confusion about the role and purpose of NOAA’s private remote sensing licenses. I hope the following information will clarify some of the misunderstanding/miscommunication.
The Land Remote Sensing Space Policy Act of 1992 directs the Department of Commerce (and in turn NOAA) to license private remote sensing satellite systems that image the earth. The primary intent of NOAA's regulations is to identify and license private/commercial high resolution satellites (e.g., electro-optical satellites that image the earth at less than 1 meter) that could pose a national security threat to the United States. For NOAA's regulatory purposes, a "satellite” is a man-made, artificial satellite of the earth that maintains a standard orbit that routinely images the earth. We are concerned with geostationary and low earth orbiting satellites, as well as satellites operating in elliptical orbits.
Neither NOAA nor any other part of the U.S. Government regulates aerial photography/imaging, and as such, images taken from suborbital flights would not need a NOAA license.
If you believe that your spacecraft meets the foregoing criteria (a satellite that maintains a standard orbit with a sensing system that routinely images the earth), please contact noaa [dot] crsl [at] noaa [dot] gov for further information.
Also, I see that the Google Lunar X PRIZE is noted in a recent interview of George Nield, the head of FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) done by Alan Boyle at MSNBC.
The relevant section:
Q: When you’re talking about commercial flights to the moon … has anyone even thought about how to regulate such flights? Is that likely to fall under the FAA’s authority?Now, as noted by a member of a former Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge team, some people take umbrage at the idea that this stuff needs to be regulated at all, instead of asking about how it should be regulated. But if it's got to be done, I think that companies based or doing business here in the US can be grateful that we have folks in the relevant offices who have a great appreciation for the need to make sure their processes do not choke out private business.
A: We’ve talked about that around the table, but I don’t have any specific answers. Right now, we have the authority to regulate launches and re-entries. The primary purpose is to protect the safety of uninvolved public on the ground. So what that leaves today is [commercial] on-orbit operations, which are not currently under any government agency in terms of regulatory authority. As we start seeing things like space hotels, that may be something that the Congress would decide needs to be updated. Taking it beyond Earth orbit, that would also need to be looked at, but I’m not sure people are ready to deal with that until it becomes more real.
Q: But if you think about it, there may be some people involved in the Google Lunar X PRIZE who are already contemplating private lunar missions, at least to send an unmanned lander to the moon. Have any of the X PRIZE teams been exploring that, or is it just too early?
A: There have been discussions along those lines. We did have a team from the X PRIZE Foundation come in and brief us on that. They mentioned that they were in the initial phases of laying out the rules, and thinking about whether there should be constraints on, for example, how close these robots should be allowed to go to the Apollo landing sites. What things should not be disturbed? Is it OK to drive over an astronaut’s footprints? There are a lot of interesting philosophical, legal, and political questions that need to be grappled with before the competition gets under way.
Q: So the FAA is involved in that. Would you say that the FAA and NASA will be having to work some of these issues more closely together? Is there a dividing line between what the FAA does and what NASA does when it comes to commercial space?
A: I think we’ll all be participants in the discussion, but NASA has a different role. We regulate. NASA is not a regulator. They’re primarily a research and development agency.
Interestingly, they’re changing their focus right now, too, with respect to commercial. They’re trying to concentrate more on exploration, getting back to the moon and going on to Mars and so forth. I think they’re showing a willingness today, through efforts like the COTS program – the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program – to rely more on industry for things that are being done in low Earth orbit. Industry clearly has the capability to operate there, so NASA should be at the edge in terms of doing new things, in exploration and the highest-technology activities. I think that’s a good approach to divvying things up.