The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a draft order that would require satellites to reenter Earth’s atmosphere just five years after their missions end, rather than the current 25-year deadline, in what is an effort to reduce space junk.
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FCC released the order on Thursday and is scheduled to take it up on September 29 for a scheduled open meeting. The draft order recommends the disposal of satellites through uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere (and subsequent disintegration) as soon as practicable, and no more than five years following the end of the spacecraft’s mission. If adopted, the order would apply to satellites operating at altitudes below 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers), and were launched two years after the adoption of the draft order. It would also apply to U.S.-licensed satellites, in addition to satellites licensed by other jurisdictions seeking to access U.S. markets.
The current guidelines for the disposing of defunct satellites were put forth by NASA in the 1990s, in which the space agency imposed a rather long 25-year deadline. As more satellites are sent to low Earth orbit, the 25-year rule seems increasingly less feasible due to an increasing risk of collisions between space debris and operational spacecraft. “It is widely recognized that the growing challenge of orbital debris poses a significant risk to our nation’s space ambitions,” the FCC wrote. “There are more than 4,800 satellites currently operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and projections for future growth in satellites suggest that there are many more to come.”
No FCC guidelines are currently in place to mandate the deorbiting of spacecraft within a certain timeframe, and the agency’s recent draft order raises the question about which governing agency gets to regulate satellites in low Earth orbit. The space industry has previously expressed concern over the FCC regulating satellites in orbit, worrying that the agency might stifle the growth of the industry. In 2020, the FCC put forth stricter space debris regulations, to which the satellite industry pushed back by arguing that they were too severe, SpaceNews reported at the time.
It’s clear to me that the current rules regulating the space industry are too outdated for a fast-growing era of commercial spaceflight and private satellite constellations—and I’m not alone in this opinion. During a speech on August 12, Vice President Kamala Harris was quoted as saying, “We’ve got to update the rules because they’re just simply outdated” as they “were written for a space industry of the last century.”
Indeed. Whether it’s the FCC or another agency, the time has come for new rules to regulate the space industry, especially as more satellites are flown up to Earth’s orbit and the more dependant we become on space as a place to do business.