70% of all catalogued objects are in low Earth orbit, as of Oct. 4, 2008, which extends to 2000 km above the Earth's surface. Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist's impression based on actual data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission will vote this week to consider changes to orbital debris guidelines that could alter deployment plans for some satellite constellations and shorten the orbital lifetime for some experimental satellites.

The notice of proposed rulemaking for “Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age”, one of a number of space-related items on the agenda of the FCC’s Nov. 15 open meeting, would seek comment on the first major overhaul of the commission’s orbital debris guidelines since 2004.

“The current period of innovation in the space industry has resulted and will likely continue to result in a significant increase in the number of satellites and types of operations in orbit, both of which have the potential to increase the amount of orbital debris,” the proposed rule states. “Thus, mitigating the growth of orbital debris is more critical than ever to ensure continued, safe operations in space.”

That increase includes proposed constellations of hundreds to thousands of satellites, primarily for communications. Most of those systems plan to operate at orbits above 650 kilometers, the approximate altitude above which satellites will not deorbit within 25 years, the current limit for post-mission orbital lifetimes in FCC guidelines.

The proposed FCC rule would require companies requesting a license for non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) systems that seek to operate at altitude above 650 kilometers to explain their rationales for selecting those orbits and “any other relevant characteristics” of the proposed orbit, such as any debris currently found there.

The FCC proposes that satellites intended for operation in orbits higher than 650 kilometers initially deploy their satellites in orbits below 650 kilometers, moving them up to their operational orbits once they have been checked out. “This would help to ensure that if satellites are found to be non-functional immediately following deployment, such that they will be unable to perform any maneuvers, they will re-enter the atmosphere within 25 years and not persist in LEO for longer periods of time,” the proposed FCC rule states, “since an unforeseen flaw could result in the failure of hundreds of satellites of a planned constellation immediately following deployment.”

The rule proposes that satellites be able to automatically initiate deorbit maneuvers in the event of a major problem, such as a loss of power or communications. The FCC also requests comment on whether licensed satellites in those higher orbits meet a “design and fabrication reliability requirement,” such as 0.999 per satellite or one failure per 1,000 satellites launched.

The proposed rule seeks comments on other changes to licensing guidelines for satellites to minimize orbital debris. For example, satellites in low Earth orbit used for technology demonstrations may complete their mission within a few weeks but remain in orbit for up to 25 years while remaining in compliance with existing orbital debris guidelines. The FCC wants feedback on alternatives approaches, such as setting the orbital lifetime of satellites with short-lived missions to no more than twice the mission lifetime.

Another area where the FCC asks for comment is on launches containing the deployment of dozens of satellites, such as this month’s launch by Spaceflight Industries of its SSO-A mission, carrying more than 70 satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9. “A single deployment of a number of satellites from a launch vehicle or free-flying deployment device could result in some heightened risk of collision between objects, or on a longer-term basis due to the similarity of orbits for the released objects,” the FCC proposed rule notes, seeking comments on “any additional informational requirements” for such launches and risk mitigation measures.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, speaking Nov. 8 at an event at the Hudson Institute here, called the proposed rule a “long overdue” update to the commission’s orbital debris regulations. “It occurred to us that, given some of the technological developments in the industry, given some of the new mitigation techniques that are out there, it might be useful for us to update those rules,” he said.

“Orbital debris is going to be a critical thing going forward,” he added. “We want to make sure we have rules in place to protect against debris.”

The proposed rulemaking for orbital debris is one of several space-related items on the docket for the monthly meeting, which the FCC has dubbed “space month.” Those other topics include authorizing two NGSO satellite systems, by Kepler Communications and LeoSat, and modifying existing authorizations for two others, by SpaceX and Telesat. The SpaceX modification would allow it to deploy a 7,518-satellite V-band system in addition to its previously authorized 4,425-satellite constellation, while adding V-band services to the existing authorization.

“We try to make sure that all companies have access to the spectrum that they need,” Pai said. “One of the things that, generally speaking, the FCC has prioritized is making sure we give the industry some certainty.”

The FCC will also vote on an order that will allow devices like smartphones to access Galileo satellite navigation signals. “This is something that is going to have a huge benefit for consumers,” Pai said. “They will have more resiliency, more reliability and greater precision whenever they’re using these devices.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...