FCC Tightens Liscensing Rules To Minimize Orbital Debris Probelm

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PARIS — U.S. regulators have further tightened rules designed to assure that satellites are designed and operated to minimize their contribution to the growing mass of in-orbit garbage.

In a ruling that complements a decision made in June 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that as of Oct. 19, all applications for satellite licenses, whether the satellite is U.S. or foreign, must include detailed commitments related to orbital-debris mitigation.

Applications that were pending as of Oct. 19 must be amended with this information by Nov. 19.

The FCC ruled in June 2004 that U.S.-licensed satellites launched after March 18, 2002 — the rules took effect before being formally adopted — must be placed into so-called graveyard orbits. For telecommunications satellites, the graveyard orbit is defined as between 200 and 300 kilometers above the geostationary arc in which most of these spacecraft operate.

In its latest ruling, the FCC expands on the previous requirements and details the information that will be necessary for prospective operators to supply or face a rejection of their applications.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network operated by the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has compiled what is considered the world’s most complete catalog of orbital debris.

As of Oct. 5, the network was tracking 9,432 pieces of orbital junk — 2,952 satellites or satellite parts and 6,480 rocket stages or fragments, according to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, which keeps a quarterly “Orbital Box Score.”

Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union accounted for 4,050 of these objects, with the United States a close second at 3,969 pieces. China was next, at 363, with France — home to Europe’s equatorial space port in French Guiana — in fourth place at 337. These figures do not include the small pieces of junk that, while as small as a fingernail, are nonetheless dangerous because they are traveling at orbital velocity.

Most of the world’s active space powers are members of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordinating Committee, which has established non-binding guidelines for how satellites and rocket upper stages should be designed to minimize the chance of explosion if they are hit by orbital junk in orbit.

It is these guidelines that the FCC has adopted in its regulations. The rules do not insist on strict compliance with a particular satellite or rocket debris-mitigation design. For now, the agency is demanding only that licensees affirm that they have taken into account the debris issue. FCC regulators are willing, for now, to take satellite operators at their word that preventive measures have been taken.

But the FCC says it retains the right to insist on further proof that operators are complying with the guidelines “in the event that a showing suggests that further review may be warranted.”

The guidelines also address satellite operations. For satellites operating in non-geostationary orbit, a flight plan must be presented showing that the operator will keep the satellite well away from other orbital objects or, in the case of low Earth orbit, from the international space station or other manned spacecraft.

Also for non-geostationary orbit, a plan for disposing of the satellite on retirement is required — either by controlled atmospheric re-entry, during which the satellite would burn up, or by use of a graveyard orbit.

To reduce their reliance on the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, several nations are developing their own, autonomous means to track orbital debris. The installations also serve to track what satellites are flying overhead as part of national security policies adopted by several governments.

The French Graves space surveillance system, developed for the French Defense Ministry, is a radar sensor connected with software that catalogs the orbital parameters of detected satellites. It is expected to be delivered to French air force late this year.

Japan has developed an experimental phased-array radar, completed in 2004, at the Kamisaibara Spaceguard Center in Okayama in western Japan. Japanese officials say the system can detect objects 80 centimeters in size at an altitude of 577 kilometers.

China this year announced it had established a Space Target and Debris Observation and Research Center, being managed as a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It is located at the Purple Mountain Observatory near Nanjing.

In opening its center, China said that if the population growth of orbital debris remains at current levels — increasing by 2-3 percent annually — “nothing would be able to enter [Earth] orbit by 2300.”