The FCC is Finally Taking Space Debris Seriously

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) wants to require operators of satellites in low Earth orbit to deorbit their spacecraft within five years of the end of their mission. This approach aims to limit the amount of debris in low orbit. This is a much shorter period of time than is currently required.

A “five-year rule” in the United States

Rocket stages, satellites and other orbital debris have been piling up around Earth since the 1960s. Today, these tens of thousands of pieces of debris pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. This “space waste” problem, which will only get worse in the coming years, was recently mentioned by the newly crowned King Charles III. Speaking at the Space Sustainability Summit in London in June, the former Prince of Wales actually called for urgent action to avert a potential orbital catastrophe.

Until now, international support from national regulators has never been felt, at least not enough to really tackle the problem. A recent announcement could reverse the trend: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States will require carriers remove satellites from orbit within five years of completing their in-orbit mission. Currently, this limit is set at twenty-five years, which unnecessarily increases the risk of collisions generating debris.

Affected satellites will be those licensed in the United States or those licensed elsewhere seeking access to the US market and evolving up to 2,000 kilometers above Earth. The FCC does not determine how the deorbit should be performed. Agencies and companies could, for example, use thrusters to redirect downwards.

FCC commissioners are expected to pass this proposal in a vote on September 29 next. If passed, this “five-year rule” will take effect in two years. It is not yet known what the penalty for non-compliance would be. This issue may be the subject of a future ordinance.

Credits: iStock

The constellations in sight

While these rules are largely US-centric, one would expect other entities to follow suit. We know in particular that the European Space Agency is very concerned about this debris problem. Two years ago, ESA also signed an agreement with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to deorbit space debris to burn it in the atmosphere.

More recently, Chinese engineers have also successfully deployed an ultra-thin sail attached to part of the rocket to speed up its orbit process as part of a test mission.

This FCC announcement was partially motivated by the recent increase in the number of low-orbit satellites, mainly from mega constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink. This constellation now has over 3,000 structures (half of all active satellites in orbit) and is expected to grow to over 12,000 in the next few years. OneWeb has also launched over 400 satellites, while Amazon plans to launch over 3,000 as part of its Kuiper project. Several of these launches will be operated by Ariane 6.

In the United States, the FCC is responsible for licensing these satellites. The agency has been heavily criticized in the past for approving these thousands of satellites without addressing the issue of possible debris.

Spacex Falcon 9 Starlink Debris
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 60 Starlink satellites into orbit of the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida on May 4, 2021. Credits: SpaceX

a limited improvement

However, not everyone is convinced of the effectiveness of this approach, like Hugh Lewis, a specialist in space debris at the University of Southampton (England). With no “de-orbiting” rules in place, modeling it indicates a potential for about 133 collisions over the next two centuries. A “twenty-five-year rule” reduces that number to 55 collisions, while a “five-year rule” just reduces the number to 43 failures (ie an improvement of 3 to 4%).

Nevertheless, it is a first step. And while there is still a lot of work to be done, this new draft decree is a sign that solving the problem of wasted space is at least the order of the day.

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