FCC sets five-year deadline for de-orbiting LEO satellites

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communication Commission wants to require operators of low-Earth-orbit satellites to deorbit their spacecraft within five years of completing their mission, a much shorter time frame than currently required.

The FCC issued a draft order Sept. 8 establishing a “five-year rule” for post-mission disposal of LEO satellites. The commission will take the order at its public meeting on September 29.

The order, if adopted by the commissioners, would require spacecraft that end their missions in or pass through LEO – defined as altitudes below 2,000 kilometers – to dispose of their spacecraft by re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. as soon as possible and no more than five years after the end of the mission. The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order was passed and would include both US-licensed satellites as well as those licensed from other jurisdictions but seeking access to the US market.

The FCC had no formal rule setting a time limit for de-orbiting satellites, but in the licenses it issued for satellites, the agency “consistently applied” a 25-year rule used by both the guidelines international orbital debris mitigation standards and standard U.S. government practices. However, many in the space industry argued that the delay was too long, creating an increased risk of collisions.

A counter argument came from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, which noted in 2020 that reducing the post-mission lifespan from 25 years to 5 years would result in only a 10% decrease in the population of orbital debris over 200 years, “which is not a statistically significant benefit.”

The FCC, however, sided with those who argued that reduced post-mission life had benefits beyond limiting long-term debris generation. Keeping defunct satellites in orbit longer, the FCC noted, also requires active satellite operators to perform more collision avoidance maneuvers, adding to the growing load.

“We believe that a five-year post-mission orbital lifetime strikes an appropriate balance between significantly reducing risk while remaining flexible and responsive to a wider selection of mission profiles,” the order states.

In the order, the FCC left open the possibility of additional conditions on the de-orbiting of satellites. This could include shorter post-mission lifetime for satellites in large constellations as well as maneuverability requirements for satellites.

The new five-year rule comes after the FCC delayed consideration of a similar rule in April 2020. FCC commissioners then opted to get more feedback on a potential change to the 25-year guideline. as well as more controversial measures, such as a performance bond. provide a financial incentive for operators to properly dispose of their satellites.

The release of the FCC’s draft order came the same day the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) released a “Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices” guide developed in cooperation with Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX. The document outlines the steps satellite operators must follow during development, launch, in-orbit operations and disposal.

The document recommends that satellites deorbit within five years of end of life, with a one-year target. For satellites that cannot reach this guideline through natural orbital decay, or whose orbits take them into the path of manned spacecraft, the document calls for an “actively managed deorbit” of the satellite, just lowering it above the natural decay point.

Regulatory issues

The FCC’s decision to establish a new rule for post-mission disposal of LEO satellites is likely to spark another round of discussion about which agency should be responsible for setting those rules.

“The rest of us were talking about space junk and it was the FCC that stepped up and made some important rules,” Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, told a panel discussion. on August 24 organized by The Aerospace Corporation and the George Washington University Space Policy Institute.

“That being said, the question is how do we want to do this in the future?” he added, noting that oversight responsibilities for the commercial space industry are currently split among several agencies, including his office and the Federal Aviation Administration.

DalBello praised the FCC for the “intellectual work” it has done on orbital debris and other topics and its rigorous rule-making process. “My only question is, is this the way we want to go piecemeal, or would we like to take a step back?”

The release of the FCC’s draft order came a day before a National Space Council meeting at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Vice President Kamala Harris, chairman of the board, said in an Aug. 12 speech that the meeting would address the need to revise “simply outdated” commercial space regulations.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Harris, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) asked the vice president to use the board meeting “to clarify domestic space industry regulations and advance international standards for ‘space activity’. Feinstein specifically mentioned his concerns about the growing population of orbital debris.

“Space debris is an increasing threat to satellites, and debris can only be managed through international cooperation, but there are no international guidelines on who is in control or responsible for repositioning satellites,” Feinstein wrote. “I urge you to work with government and industry experts, as well as international partners, to develop clearer rules for spaceflight and debris management.”

The White House did not release the council meeting agenda or other details about the event in advance. It wasn’t until the release of the vice president’s schedule at the end of September 8 that the meeting time was announced: 2:20 p.m. EST.

Comments are closed.