Space debris lands on FCC’s November agenda

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has deemed November "Space Month" at the FCC. (Pixabay)

Space debris is going to get a lot more attention if FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has his way. Pai is proposing the first comprehensive review of the commission’s orbital debris rules since their adoption in 2004, and given the number of proposed satellite constellations under consideration, the timing couldn’t be better.

In a meeting that promises to send the FCC “where it’s never gone before,” Pai in a blog post spelled out nine space-related items out of 11 topics the FCC will consider at its open meeting on Nov. 15.

Pai explained that as more things get launched into space, that means more orbital debris is milling about, which reduces the space available for new satellites and satellite systems and increases the risk profile of every launch.

It’s a problem that OneWeb Chairman Greg Wyler described extensively to lawmakers a year ago—OneWeb itself is ensuring that its satellites will disintegrate on re-entry and doesn’t use materials that would survive de-orbit.

Pai said the orbital debris problem is only set to grow as CubeSats and other small, relatively inexpensive satellites are deployed, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

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Also on the agenda is a proposal to allow American devices to access the European global navigation system known as Galileo. Pai said that enabling the Galileo system to work in concert with the U.S. GPS constellation should make GPS more precise, reliable and resilient.

In addition, the commission will finally vote on a package of orders that would give the green light to companies seeking to roll out new and expanded services using new nongeostationary satellite constellations. Kepler is one of them—it’s aiming to introduce a low-cost system targeting the IoT—and LeoSat is another. LeoSat expects to launch its constellation in 2020 and wants to provide high-speed, low-latency communications for business operations in telecom backhaul, energy and maritime.

Pai said the FCC is aiming to approve both requests, and it’s also targeting for approval the requests of SpaceX and TeleSat Canada to expand the frequencies they use so that their fleets of low Earth orbit satellites can offer better broadband service.

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The FCC is also looking to expand opportunities for satellites to serve Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs), a path the commission started to pursue in September when it made it easier for geostationary orbit satellites to target ESIMs, improving the transmission of data to moving vehicles like ships, airplanes or school buses.

Building on that work, the chairman said he circulated a proposal to expand the scope of the ESIM rules to cover communications with nongeostationary orbit satellites.

“This proposal would unlock new uses of satellites, ensuring that those who need broadband on-the-go can access the technology that best meets their needs,” he said.