FCC launches space debris mitigation review

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The FCC is seeking comment on new rules designed to better manage space debris. (Pixabay)

The FCC today agreed to the agency’s first comprehensive review of its orbital debris rules since their adoption in 2004, although one commissioner believes the rules do not go far enough.

Since the commission first adopted rules regarding orbital debris mitigation more than a decade ago, there have been numerous developments in technologies, improvements in mitigation techniques—and a bevy of new satellite constellations proposed with smaller satellites and more of them.

Space debris consists of a variety of objects, including nonfunctional satellites, that are orbiting Earth. Commissioner Brendan Carr noted in his prepared statement that a few thousand communications satellites are orbiting Earth, and most of them are no longer in operation. In the coming years, zombie and active satellites alike will have a lot more neighbors, he said, noting that one company alone plans to launch more than 10,000 satellites that will be smaller and fly closer together than those of previous generations.

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Recognizing that space debris can pose a risk to operations in Earth orbit, including satellites and manned spacecraft—and in some cases, pieces of debris falling back to Earth can pose safety risks to people on the ground—the commission agreed to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which seeks to keep up with technological and market changes and to incorporate improvements in debris mitigation practices.

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Chairman Ajit Pai said it’s high time for the commission to take up these issues. “Specifically, we’re proposing new rules and disclosures to mitigate the threat posed by orbital debris,” he said in a prepared statement. “Indeed, we’re exploring six ways to address this problem, including changes in satellite design, better disposal procedures, and active collision avoidance. I look forward to reviewing the feedback on these proposals and then doing our part to keep the final frontier safe for new and innovative uses.”

Among other things, the NPRM proposes changes to improve disclosure of debris mitigation plans and makes proposals related to satellite disposal reliability and methodology, appropriate deployment altitudes in low Earth orbit, and on-orbit lifetime, with a particular focus on large nongeostationary orbit satellite constellations. Other aspects of the NPRM include new rule proposals for geostationary orbit satellite license term extension requests and consideration of disclosure requirements related to several emerging technologies and new types of commercial operations. 

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the item isn’t glitzy or glamorous but represents the real workhorse for the commission’s meeting. Any successful orbital debris policy will consist of many parts, including modeling, measuring and observation, he noted. The commission is not the lead agency on the problem; its primary role should be to make sure the current satellite providers are good stewards of their orbital and launch activities to prevent exacerbation of the problem, he said.

Carr also said he was glad that the draft item circulated by Pai three weeks ago noted the expertise that exists across the federal government: sister agencies that have expertise and jurisdiction over the launch and tracking of satellites, including NASA, the Department of Defense, the FAA, the State Department and the new Office of Space Commerce. He asked his colleagues at the commission to expand the question in the NPRM that goes to the FCC’s expertise and authority and thanked them for accommodating his requests. The item now takes a bigger picture view, asking which are the right agencies and experts to be asking the questions.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the commission, said the item doesn’t go far enough and represents a timid start to addressing the problems. “It asks loads of technical questions about what sorts of information about orbital debris we should expect from satellite operators, but it fails to set forth a vision for the coming commercial space age,” she said. “Likewise, it proposes no principles or measurable goals for space safety.”

The rulemaking the commission voted on today backtracks on the draft that was released three weeks ago, she added, noting that it adds “confusing language about whether or not this work should even continue in these halls.”