FCC approves satellite de-orbit rule despite potential conflict with NASA guidelines

FCC approves satellite de-orbit rule despite potential conflict with NASA guidelines

Illustration of a garbage can floating in orbit around the Earth.

Getty Images | PM pictures

The Federal Communications Commission today unanimously approved a rule aimed at minimizing space debris by requiring satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) to be disposed of no later than five years after decommissioning. “The new rules shorten the 25-year-old directive for post-mission satellite deorbit, marking an important step into 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 which is based on a NASA recommendation proposed in the 1990s. The FCC said it would apply to “stations spacecraft completing their missions or passing through the region of low Earth orbit below 2,000 kilometres”.

Satellites already in orbit will be exempt from the new requirement. There is also a two-year grandfathering period for satellites already licensed by the FCC but not yet launched.

LEO satellites can be removed from orbit faster than those at higher altitudes. Starlink, which has launched more than 3,000 LEO satellites, uses a de-orbit process that can be completed within months.

But there is controversy over the FCC’s authority to implement the rule and a possible conflict with NASA guidelines. On Tuesday, leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee said they were “concerned about 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 lacks clear authority from Congress, a fact that remains true today,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the FCC chairman. Jessica Rosenworth.

Draft FCC rules released a few weeks ago said the commission had already “enacted comprehensive orbital debris rules in 2004, consistent with its authority to determine whether the public interest would be served by licensing systems.” satellite communications”. The FCC drafted the new five-year rule after “seeking feedback on a comprehensive update to its rules on orbital debris to better reflect the significant increase in satellites and types of operations in orbit,” it said. said the agency.

NASA reassesses orbital debris standards

“Internationally, NASA has led the coordination of space debris mitigation guidelines with other space agencies for several decades,” the lawmakers wrote to Rosenworcel. NASA should also reevaluate the US government’s standards for orbital debris, the letter states:

Within the federal government, agencies follow U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standards and Practices, which are developed through coordination within the federal government and based on scientific and technical research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Additionally, NASA has been instructed to re-evaluate these standards and FCC action at this time could lead to conflicting US guidance.

The lawmakers argued that “the FCC’s regulatory action at this time, without clear congressional authority, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the work of the Commission, and at worst will undermine economic competitiveness and leadership of the United States in space”. The letter was sent by Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Ranking Committee Member Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Don Beyer (D-Va.) and the ranking subcommittee member. Brian Babin (R-Texas).

A NASA spokesperson declined to comment on today’s FCC vote, but noted that the agency submitted comments to the FCC’s orbital debris filing in April 2019 and October 2020.

The FCC considered NASA’s comments, noting that the space agency “expressed concern that a five-year limit would impact NASA’s Science Mission Directorate CubeSat missions.” (SMD), which rely on natural orbit decay 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 take these concerns into account, the FCC plan makes it possible to obtain exemptions to the five-year rule on a case-by-case basis, in particular for scientific research missions.

Although NASA did not explicitly oppose a five-year rule, it said in 2019 comments that “NASA analysis shows that as long as short-lived spacecraft adhere to the 25-year rule , their negative contribution to the orbital environment is not significant.”

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