FCC to set five-year deadline for deorbiting LEO satellites

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Communication Commission wants to require operators of low Earth orbit satellites to deorbit their spacecraft within five years after their mission ends, a much shorter timeframe than currently required.

The FCC issued a draft order Sept. 8 setting a “five-year rule” for post-mission disposal of LEO satellites. The commission will take up the order at its Sept. 29 open meeting.

The order, if adopted by commissioners, would require spacecraft that end their missions in or passing through LEO — defined as altitudes below 2,000 kilometers — dispose of their spacecraft through reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as soon as practicable and no more than five years after the end of the mission. The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order is adopted, and include both U.S.-licensed satellites as well as those licensed by other jurisdictions but seeking U.S. market access.

The FCC did not have a formal rule setting a deadline for deorbiting satellites, but in the licenses it issued for satellites the agency “consistently applied” a 25-year rule used by both international orbital debris mitigation guidelines and U.S. government standard practices. Many in the space industry, though, argued that timeline was too long, creating an increased risk of collisions.

A counterargument came from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, which noted in 2020 that reducing the post-mission lifetime from 25 years to 5 years would result in only a 10% decrease in the orbital debris population over 200 years, “which is not a statistically significant benefit.”

The FCC, though, sided with those who argued that decreasing the post-mission lifetime had benefits beyond limiting long-term debris generation. Keeping defunct satellites in orbit longer, the FCC noted, also requires operators of active satellites to perform more collision avoidance maneuvers, adding to a growing burden.

“We believe that a five-year post-mission orbital lifetime strikes an appropriate balance between meaningfully reducing risk while remaining flexible and responsive to a broader selection of mission profiles,” the order stated.

In the order, the FCC left open the possibility of additional conditions on deorbiting satellites. That could include a shorter post-mission lifetime for satellites in large constellations as well as maneuverability requirements for satellites.

The new five-year rule comes after the FCC delayed consideration of a similar rule in April 2020. FCC commissioners elected then to get more feedback on a potential change to the 25-year guideline as well as more controversial measures, such as a performance bond to provide a financial incentive for operators to properly dispose of their satellites.

The release of the FCC draft order came the same day the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) published a “Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices” guide developed in cooperation with Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX. The document outlines steps satellites operators should take during development, launch, on-orbit operations and disposal.

The document recommends that satellites deorbit within five years of the end of life, with a goal of one year. For those satellites that can’t achieve that guideline through natural orbital decay, or whose orbits take them in the path of crewed spacecraft, the document calls for an “actively-managed deorbit” of the satellite, lowering it to just above the point of natural decay.

Regulatory issues

The FCC’s move to set new a new rule for post-mission disposal of LEO satellites is likely to trigger another round of discussions about what agency should be responsible for setting such rules.

“The rest of us were talking about space debris and it was the FCC that stepped forward and made some significant rules,” said Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, during an Aug. 24 panel discussion organized by The Aerospace Corporation and George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

“That being said, the question is, how do we want to do this going forward?” he added, noting that responsibilities for oversight of the commercial space industry are currently spread among several agencies, including his office and the Federal Aviation Administration.

DalBello praised the FCC for the “intellectual work” it has done on orbital debris and other topics and its rigorous process for establishing rules. “My only question is, is that the way we want to piecemeal this going forward, or would we like to take a step back?”

The release of the FCC draft order came a day before a meeting of the National Space Council at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Vice President Kamala Harris, chair of the council, said in an Aug. 12 speech that the meeting would take up the need to revise “simply outdated” commercial space regulations.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Harris, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the vice president to use the council meeting “to provide regulatory clarity for the domestic space industry and to advance international norms for space activity.” Feinstein specifically mentioned her concerns about the growing population of orbital debris.

“Space debris increasingly threatens satellites, and debris can only be managed through international cooperation, yet no international guidelines for right-of-way or satellite repositioning responsibility exist,” Feinstein wrote. “I urge you to work with experts in government and industry, as well as international partners to develop clearer rules for spaceflight and debris management.”

The White House has not released an agenda for the council meeting or other details about the event in advance. Only with the release of the vice president’s schedule late Sept. 8 was the time of the meeting announced: 2:20 p.m. Eastern.