FCC Launches Review of Satellite Orbital Debris Mitigation Rules

WASHINGTON, November 15, 2018  (FCC PR) — The Federal Communications Commission today initiated a comprehensive review of its orbital debris mitigation rules. [Download proposed rules here.]

Orbital debris, also known as space debris, consists of a variety of objects, including non-functional satellites, that are orbiting the Earth. Debris can pose a risk to operations in Earth orbit, including satellites and manned spacecraft, and in some instances, pieces of debris falling back to Earth can pose a risk to persons and property on the surface of the Earth.

With this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission is seeking to keep pace with technological and market changes, and to incorporate improvements in debris mitigation practices into the Commission’s rules. Today’s action will help to preserve the space environment for continued innovation.

The Commission’s current orbital debris rules were first adopted in 2004. Since then, there have been significant changes in satellite technologies and market conditions, particularly in Low Earth Orbit, i.e., below 2000 kilometers altitude. These changes include the increasing use of lower-cost small satellites and proposals to deploy large constellations of non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems, some involving thousands of satellites.

The NPRM proposes changes to improve disclosure of debris mitigation plans. The NPRM also makes proposals and seeks comment related to satellite disposal reliability and methodology, appropriate deployment altitudes in low-Earth-orbit, and on-orbit lifetime, with a particular focus on large NGSO satellite constellations.

Other aspects of the NPRM include new rule proposals for geostationary orbit satellite (GSO) license term extension requests, and consideration of disclosure requirements related to several emerging technologies and new types of commercial operations, including rendezvous and proximity operations.

Action by the Commission November 15, 2018 by Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 18-159). Chairman Pai, Commissioners O’Rielly, and Carr approving. Commissioner Rosenworcel concurring. Chairman Pai, Commissioners O’Rielly, Carr, and Rosenworcel issuing separate statements.

  • envy

    This proposes that LEO constellations be required to deploy below 650 km so that a failed satellite decays within a few decades. So no direct insertions for those operating at 1000-1300 km.

    Also that all satellites operating under 2000 km be required to either be retrieved, or deorbit to a point low enough for decay to happen within 25 years. For a constellation the aggregate deorbit reliability needs to be 90%. So no graveyard orbits for anything operating below 2000 km, and the deorbit method need to be quite reliable.

  • duheagle

    Am I the only one wondering what the $%&(#)%$ business it is of the FCC to have anything to say about orbital debris? I wonder what the National Park Service or the National Endowment for the Humanities have to say on the subject?

  • Jeff2Space

    Yes it’s a bit weird, but since debris can destroy communications satellites, it’s tangentially related.

  • duheagle

    Debris can destroy the ISS too. The ISS is government housing. Maybe HUD should be in charge of orbital debris policy?

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    Partially it’s because of a power vacuum–our nation has signed treaties saying that we would oversee activities like this, but Congress hasn’t officially delegated that responsibility to any particular US agency. The FCC is kind of a weird fit on the surface, but they do have space experience because they oversee RF broadcasts into/out of US territory, including ones made by satellites. The one advantage I can see of having the FCC handle debris mitigation regulations vs say FAA/DOT, NOAA, or Dept of Commerce is that unlike the other agencies, that only regulate US operators, the FCC licenses everyone that wants to broadcast into US territory, which ends up covering almost all commercial satellites, regardless of their country of origin. So having the FCC handle it provides a level playing field that makes it so people can’t just shop around for a locale to base themselves out of that doesn’t take debris mitigation rules seriously.

    That said–even the FCC knows they’re sticking their neck out on this, and I’d rather see a clear Congressional delegation of authority than a regulatory agency assuming authority that hasn’t been officially delegated. But Congress has kind of been asleep at the wheel in this area for years, and I’m not holding my breath on them doing something intelligent here.

  • Jonathan A. Goff

    I want to read through this, because 90% reliability within 25yrs isn’t good enough according to recent NASA/ESA studies. Fortunately from what I hear the NPRM does ask a lot of questions to get feedback from interested parties.

  • duheagle

    That’s a pretty thin rationale. There are, for example, plenty of GEO birds that don’t transmit into the U.S. or its territories. The alleged global reach of FCC is questionable.

    That said, I’d be a lot more sanguine about FCC having some sort of say about orbital debris if it could at least demonstrate that it is doing a competent job of being a spectrum cop, which was what it was originally set up to do. Based on a number of developments over the last several years, the FCC doesn’t even seem to be very good at the job it was established to do. It has no damned business indulging in gratuitous mission creepiness when its basic job is being bungled.

    More to the point, the FCC has no space-based assets. USAF, NRO, DoD, NOAA and NASA all do. That would make any of them at least self-interested players where orbital debris is concerned. As the solution to orbital debris is going to inevitably be active remediation – possibly of several different kinds – an agency that has some experience launching and operating space-based assets would be preferable to a bunch of Earth-bound chair jockeys like the FCC. The best choice to handle orbital debris, of course, would be the still-notional USSF.