FCC moves forward with orbital debris reform amid soul-searching about its responsibilities

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission pressed forward with plans to firm up its rules about space safety and orbital debris Nov. 15 while at the same time questioning whether it is the right agency to do so.

In a discussion that preceded the approval of four large constellations constituting nearly 8,000 new satellites, three of the FCC’s four commissioners grappled with the telecom agency’s role in addressing the maintenance of different orbits.

The FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking assesses ways to modernize rules established in 2004 when the agency first started requiring debris mitigation plans from companies that wanted to serve customers in the United States using telecom satellites.

Since collisions or malfunctions can cause satellites to create space debris and jeopardize entire orbits, the FCC began factoring in proper satellite disposal and debris mitigation plans in its licensing process. But the technical requirements for dealing with those issues have some wondering if the agency is branching out beyond its remit.

“All of this raises a more basic question: are we the right expert agency to make these assessments?” asked FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. “We can respond by saying, hey, we’ve got a lot of smart people here, and this isn’t rocket science, except it is. It is literally rocket science we are engaging in.”

The FCC is weighing benchmarks for satellites, such as a 99.9 percent fabrication reliability standard for large constellations in low Earth orbit but above 600 to 650 kilometers. Other potential criteria such as how to best dispose of satellites and what risk they pose to people during reentry is also being considered, Carr said.

“Any successful orbital debris policy will consist of many parts, including modelling, measuring and observation, mitigating, remediation and planning for orbital reentry,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

O’Rielly said it is important that the FCC is not the lead agency on orbital debris given the “far greater expertise and authority” of other entities within and outside the United States.

“Our primary role should be to ensure that current satellite providers are good stewards of their orbital and launch activities to prevent exacerbation of the problem,” he said. “This important work becomes more difficult when applicants are contemplating satellite constellations with thousands of satellites and multiple launches.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed frustration with the agency’s timidity on issues of orbital management.

“Instead of moving forward aggressively, as our draft effort contemplated, we backtrack and add confusing language about whether or not this work should even continue in these halls,” she said. “This is not the leadership we need as we embark on a new era in space. We need clear guidance from this agency.”

Rosenworcel said the FCC’s openly existential debate about its role in orbital management, coupled with a litany of technical questions about what information to request from satellite operators, was muddying the path forward rather than making it clearer as intended.

The commissioners nonetheless voted unanimously in favor of the new rulemaking session despite their reservations.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the increasing number of satellites in orbit led the commission to reevaluate its rules on this topic. The FCC is seeking comments from interested parties regarding its proposed rules.

“I look forward to reviewing the public input we get on these proposals and then doing our part to keep this final frontier safe for new and innovative uses,” Pai said.