Those Pictures Of The Tesla In Space Might Have Been Illegal

SpaceX's flashy footage from orbit might run afoul of an obscure federal regulation.

Those Pictures Of The Tesla In Space Might Have Been Illegal

If you watched SpaceX's last satellite launch, you might have seen the livestream from orbit shut down midflight. But it wasn't technical difficulty so much as bureaucracy. It turns out SpaceX didn't have the necessary license to broadcast video from orbit.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rule says anything larger than a handheld camera that broadcasts from space needs a special permit. It's said to be a matter of national security.

But SpaceX has been sending up cameras on its rockets for years and has never sought a permit. That includes the Starman shots from the Falcon Heavy demo flight, which livestreamed a Tesla in space with Earth in the background.

NOAA didn't go out of its way to enforce the rule, either. It says it was never officially informed that SpaceX had started sticking cameras on its rockets — despite millions of people seeing the footage. In fact, SpaceX asked NOAA about the rules ahead of this last launch — and NOAA started enforcing them so suddenly that even some parts of the agency thought it might have been a mistake

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy lifting off amid a dust cloud

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An NOAA statement clears it up, at least: The agency says it will hold SpaceX and other launch companies to those rules going forward. Congress is also considering streamlining the rules on commercial cameras in orbit so mix-ups like this don't happen as often.

It's not clear if future permits will let SpaceX broadcast whole launches, but some missions will be fair game. NASA cameras on the International Space Station captured Wednesday's resupply docking, and that footage is public domain.