The Federal Communications Commission today unanimously approved a rule that aims to minimize space debris by requiring low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to be disposed no more than five years after being taken out of service. “The new rules shorten the decades-old 25-year guideline for deorbiting satellites post-mission, taking an important step in a new era for space safety and orbital debris policy,” the FCC said in a press release.
As previously reported, the new five-year rule will be legally binding, unlike the current 25-year standard that’s based on a NASA recommendation proposed in the 1990s. The FCC has said it will apply to “space stations ending their missions in or passing through the low-Earth orbit region below 2,000 kilometers.”
Satellites already in orbit will be exempt from the new requirement. There’s also a grandfathering period of two years for satellites that are already authorized by the FCC but not yet launched.
LEO satellites can be taken out of orbit faster than ones in higher altitudes. Starlink, which has launched over 3,000 LEO satellites, uses a de-orbiting process that can be completed in months.
But there is controversy over the FCC’s authority to implement the rule and a possible conflict with NASA guidance. On Tuesday, leaders of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics said they are “concerned by the FCC’s proposal to act unilaterally.”
“As the bipartisan leadership of the Science Committee and our Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee wrote to your predecessor in April 2020, the Commission does not have clear authority from Congress, a fact which remains true today,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
The draft of the FCC rule released a few weeks ago said the commission already “adopted comprehensive rules on orbital debris in 2004, pursuant to its authority to determine whether the public interest would be served by the authorization of satellite communications systems.” The FCC drafted the new five-year rule after “seeking comment on a comprehensive update to its orbital debris rules to better reflect the significant increase in satellites and types of operations in orbit,” the agency said.
NASA reevaluating orbital debris standards
“Internationally, NASA has led coordination on space debris mitigation guidelines with other space agencies over several decades,” lawmakers wrote to Rosenworcel. NASA also is slated to reevaluate the US government’s orbital debris standards, the letter said:
Within the Federal government, agencies follow US Orbital Debris Mitigation Standards and Practices, which are developed through coordination within the Federal government and based on scientific and technical research led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In addition, NASA has been charged with reevaluating those standards and action by the FCC at this time could lead to conflicting US guidelines.
Lawmakers argued that “regulatory action by the FCC at this time, without clear authority from Congress, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the Commission’s work, and at worst undermine US economic competitiveness and leadership in space.” The letter was sent by Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the committee’s ranking member Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Don Beyer (D-Va.), and the subcommittee’s ranking member Brian Babin (R-Texas).
The FCC took NASA comments into consideration, noting that the space agency “expressed concern that a five-year limit would impact NASA Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD’s) CubeSat missions, which rely on natural decay of orbit to manage post-mission orbital lifetime and impose greater limits on acceptable launch opportunities.” The five-year requirement “may be unduly burdensome” at certain altitudes, the FCC said. To account for those concerns, the FCC plan makes it possible to get waivers from the five-year rule on a case-by-case basis, particularly for scientific research missions.
While NASA didn’t explicitly oppose a five-year rule, it said in the 2019 comments that “NASA analysis shows that as long as short duration spacecraft adhere to the 25-year rule, their negative contribution to the orbital environment is not significant.”