FCC Publishes Draft Debris Mitigation Rules

Computer generated image showing the debris cloud around Earth.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Citing new satellite constellations that plan to collectively launch thousands of new satellites into Earth orbit, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to update its regulations on space debris for the first time in 15 years.

“Proposed deployments of large satellite constellations in the intensely used LEO region, along with other satellites deployed in the LEO region, will have the potential to increase the risk of debris-generating events,” the FCC said in a notice in the Federal Register. “New satellite and deployment technologies currently in use and under development also may increase the number of potential debris-generating events, in the absence of improved debris mitigation practices.”

[View Full FCC Notice (PDF)]

The proposal includes significant changes in current disclosure and operational requirements for satellite owners. The commission is seeking comments on the viability of various orbital debris mitigation techniques.

Under the proposed changes, applicants would be required to:

  • certify that all satellites that will operate at an altitude of 650 km (404 miles) or above will be initially deployed into a lower orbit and only maneuvered to its planned altitude once it is deemed to be fully functional;
  • provide a statement that spacecraft disposal for non-geosynchronous satellite orbit (NGSO) systems will be automatically initiated in the event of loss of power or contact with the spacecraft;
  • disclose whether the spacecraft is capable of, or will be, performing any space rendezvous or proximity operations;
  • detail the expected reliability of disposal measures involving atmospheric re-entry, and the method by which that expected reliability was derived;
  • provide information about any operational constraints caused to the International Space Station or other inhabitable spacecraft and strategies used to avoid collision with manned spacecraft; and,
  • disclose the ability to track the proposed satellites using space situational awareness facilities, such as the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.

“The Commission proposes that objects greater than 10 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm be presumed trackable for any altitude up to the geostationary region, although the Commission seeks comment on whether a larger size should be presumed at higher altitudes given any tracking limitations at such altitudes,” the notice stated.

The FCC is also looking for comments from interested parties on whether it should:

  • adopt a rule that disposal of spacecraft in the LEO region must be by either atmospheric re-entry or direct retrieval;
  • require all NGSO satellites planning to operate above a particular altitude to include propulsion capabilities reserved for station-keeping and to enable collision avoidance maneuvers, regardless of whether propulsion is necessary to de-orbit within 25 years;
  • require applicants for NGSO satellites must demonstrate that the probability that their spacecraft will collide with a large object during the orbital lifetime of the spacecraft will be no greater than 0.001;
  • limit the 0.001 collision requirement to operations in certain highly-populated orbits, or to large constellations with more than 100 satellites;
  • consider direct retrieval of a satellite to be a valid debris mitigation strategy, only if the retrieval spacecraft are presented for licensing as part of or contemporaneously with the constellation license; and,
  • require space station licensees should indemnify the United States against any costs associated with a claim brought against the United States related to the authorized facilities.

Responses from interested parties are due on April 5.