Hazardous materials. The phrase conjures thoughts of chemicals melting metal or an intense explosion when two chemicals mix. Thankfully, international regulatory agencies have put measures and regulations in place to control events such as this. But often, these regulations are a minefield for our customers looking to ship spacecraft to launch sites, as certain components of satellites fall under this definition.
The U.S. Department of Transportation defines hazardous materials (hazmat) as “products or articles or substances that are capable of posing a significant risk to health, safety or property when transported by air, rail, ground, or sea.” We’ve spent years getting to know the ins and outs of hazmat shipping, and can help our customers ensure a smooth process when shipping across states or continents.
A Closer Look: The Lithium-Ion Battery
The most common hazmat in the satellite industry is lithium-ion batteries. Satellite manufacturers have long made wide use of them for good reason: They have a high energy density and require low maintenance which make them make an ideal power source. Unfortunately, ideal battery design doesn’t always meet all of the regulations.
Because of their prominence and widespread use in mobile devices, lithium-ion batteries are closely monitored and highly regulated. Typically, regulatory agencies publish regulations annually. Lithium-ion batteries, though, often receive updates throughout the year, so what was allowable last year or even last month may not be acceptable now. When a battery doesn’t meet the regulations, it’s not allowed to be transported under normal shipping conditions. In this scenario, a shipper may request authorization to ship the battery, showing it has taken all necessary precautions to ensure safe transport. This process can take up to three months, so it’s a critical factor when planning for a target launch date.
It is the shipper’s responsibility to comply with the most up-to-date information, which is why we make sure to track any changes and pass this information on to our customers (so they can focus on building the best satellites they can, and don’t have to worry about this). Keep in mind, the same methods employed to ensure compliance with lithium-ion batteries also are applied to other materials, including those used in propulsion systems such as mercury, butane, and noble gases. This requires a thorough understanding of the regulations surrounding each specific material.
Governing Bodies and Penalties
There are multiple agencies that govern the transport of “Dangerous Goods” and they each publish content to identify, define, package, and transport dangerous goods
1. DOT (Department of Transportation) – U.S. regulatory agency concerned with all matters related to transportation
2. ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization Transport Association) – UN specialized agency that sets standards, recommendations, and policies for the aviation sector
3. IMO (International Maritime Organization) – UN specialized agency that sets standards, recommendations, and policies for the maritime sector
Fig. 1 – IATA List of Dangerous Goods
The table above is a snapshot of the List of Dangerous Goods. To the untrained eye, it merely contains a set of codes and numbers. To someone with experience and knowledge of shipping hazmat, it is the foundation to properly package and label a shipment for air transport. From this table, a shipper can quickly determine the degree of danger, how a dangerous good needs to be packaged, quantity limits, the mode of transport (passenger or cargo aircraft), and where to find specific packaging specifications. As you can see, shipping dangerous goods requires expert knowledge and experience. Let Spaceflight handle the shipping so you can focus on manufacturing your spacecraft.
Besides the safety concerns of shipping hazmat materials improperly, there are significant financial penalties for failing to adhere to all regulations. If a U.S. transportation official determines a shipper knowingly violated a federal hazmat transportation law, the shipper is liable for a civil penalty of up to $81,993. If the penalty results in the death, serious illness, or severe injury to any person the violation increases to $191,316. These penalties apply to both the transportation laws and the packaging laws—yes, there are laws pertaining to the design, manufacture, and use of packaging intended for the transport of hazmat! These are particularly complicated when what you’re packaging is a satellite.
Our expertise about every nuance of launching a spacecraft, from logistics to licensing and insurance, is why customers choose to launch with us. Spaceflight has the expertise to help you navigate the challenging dangerous goods regulatory shipping environment to ensure you’re complying with all international regulations. Our customers put too much time and money into the development of their spacecraft to be hit with an obstacle like a federal hazmat fine – or worse, missing a scheduled launch – because they were unaware of the intricacies of hazmat shipping rules and regulations.
We’re happy to help you determine how to most efficiently and safely get your spacecraft from here to there, and from Earth to orbit. Send an email to our logistics expert, Ben Martin at BMartin@spaceflight.com.