Rosenworcel Proposes New Rules to Address Growing Risk of Space Debris

The FCC wants to tackle space junk. But you can’t just put a satellite whose job is completed in a recycle bin.

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel circulated for a vote among her colleagues new rules that would require satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within five years of completing their missions. If adopted by the full Commission at its September monthly meeting, the new rules would shorten the existing 25-year guideline for deorbiting satellites after they stop functioning.

“Since 1957 humanity has put thousands of satellites into the sky, often with the understanding that they were cheaper to abandon than take out of orbit,” she said. “These satellites can stay in orbit for decades, careening around our increasingly crowded skies as space junk and raising the risk of collisions that can ruin satellites we count on.”  

There’s no reason to wait 25 years before removing non-functioning satellites from orbit, Rosenworcel said. “Our space economy is moving fast. For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to expand.”

The proposal would require satellites ending their mission in or passing through the low-Earth orbit region below roughly 1,240 miles altitude to deorbit as soon as practicable but no later than five years after its mission is completed. The mission length of any satellite is determined through its application process with the FCC’s International Bureau. The proposal notes the Commission will continue to assess whether a shorter post-mission disposal requirement, such as one year, is appropriate for large satellite constellations. 

The Commission recently began a proceeding to promote the development of in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing capabilities in the United States, Inside Towers reported. As part of this effort, the FCC also is updating its regulatory frameworks and adding more engineers and policy experts to speed up its commercial satellite licensing processes. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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