FCC urged to delay vote on new space debris regulations

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WASHINGTON — The leaders of the House Science Committee are asking the Federal Communications Commission to delay an April 23 vote to introduce stricter space debris regulations opposed by the satellite industry.

“Regulatory action by the FCC at this time, without clear authority from Congress, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the [FCCs] work, and at worst undermine U.S. economic competitiveness and leadership in space,” the lawmakers wrote in an April 15 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The letter was signed by the House Science Committee’s chair and ranking member — Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) — and their counterparts on the space and aeronautics subcommittee.

The FCC released a draft of its “Mitigating Orbital Debris in the New Space Age” rules April 2. The rulemaking is the FCC’s first effort to update its space debris regulations since 2004. 

Johnson and her fellow House Science Committee members said the FCC’s rules have alarmed the space industry, are “inconsistent with existing and proposed legislative action” and are not helped by the FCCs own vacillations over whether it has the authority to regulate space debris at all. 

The proposed regulations, which would affect everything from cubesats to large geostationary satellites, would enter force 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, according to Heather Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the House Science Committee’s Republican members. 

Industry officials said the time between a vote and publication in the Federal Register could take weeks to months.

The congressional pushback follows a pair of letters the FCC received April 14 from the Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association criticizing the proposed rules. 

The Aerospace Industries Association said the commission’s new rules “lack transparency and objectivity and would likely confuse, discourage, and disincentivize the continued growth of the U.S. satellite industry.”

The Satellite Industry Association said it “recommends greater discussion between the Commission and the space community on the rationale for deviations from the [U.S. government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices].”

The Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, established in 2001 to set standards for U.S. government satellites, were updated in late 2019 following a review that started in 2018 after the publication of Space Policy Directive 3. The NASA-led update, which the FCC participated in, was underwhelming to many in the space safety community. 

Some orbital debris experts say the updated FCC rules are long overdue.

“While we agree these rules are not perfect, we do not think further delay is in the public interest,” Brian Weeden, the Secure World Foundation’s director of program planning, said by email. “This issue has been argued over and delayed for the better part of a decade already, while the large constellations are already starting to be deployed.”

Hugh Lewis, head of the astronautics research group at the University of Southampton, told SpaceNews the space industry needs to get accustomed to higher safety thresholds if it wants to keep space safe. 

“I welcome the tightening of regulations and rules related to orbital debris,” he said by email, “but I also think more research is needed to understand what an acceptable risk threshold should be and how it might be measured in a robust and reliable way.”

Too strict? 

The satellite industry has many concerns with the FCC’s proposed rules. Among the biggest is that the FCC may not grant licenses to companies that have satellite constellations with a collective collision risk of more than 1 in 1,000. The Satellite Industry Association points out that NASA’s standard is a 1 in 1,000 risk per satellite, a more forgiving threshold.

Lewis said the FCC’s plan to hold an entire constellation to the same odds of being involved in an on-orbit collision as a single satellite is a “considerable change” in how the risk has traditionally been assessed.

“I can understand the concern coming from [non-geosynchronous satellite] constellation operators,” he said. “I don’t think that constellations that have already been approved under the old set of rules would be permitted to go ahead under these proposed rules.”

The FCC’s proposed rules also require that a constellation pose no more than a 1 in 10,000 risk of killing or injuring anyone while deorbiting, in order to obtain an FCC license. NASA’s safety standard for de-orbiting a satellite is a 1 in 10,000 risk for any given satellite. 

“Aspiring to a calculated human casualty risk from surviving debris of zero is a goal all should aspire to meet, [but] it should be clear that the NASA standard probability risk of 0.0001 per satellite is the minimum acceptable threshold,” the Satellite Industry Association wrote. 

The FCC also plans to require new satellites operating above 400 kilometers to have propulsion systems or other means of collision avoidance — a rule that is stricter than the 600-kilometer benchmark the FCC introduced last year for streamlined smallsat licenses. The FCC said this rule would not be enforced until April 23, 2022 to allow satellites already under construction to continue without lengthy and costly redesigns. 

That grace period is too small, according to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Commercial Smallsat Spectrum Management Association, two trade groups that also wrote the FCC asking to delay the vote. 

The FCC’s proposed rules include a provision that would require companies to indemnify the U.S. government against any damage claims resulting from their satellites which, by virtue of their FCC licenses, are considered under international law to be the United States’ responsibility. The FCC doesn’t want the U.S. government to be obligated paying for damages caused by a private satellite operator who, for example, damaged another nation’s satellite, property or people in the process of moving or deorbiting a spacecraft. 

The Satellite Industry Association said the FCC’s indemnification rule doesn’t specify liability limits, making it difficult for companies to plan for such costs and to comply with disclosures required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The FCC also intends to require satellite operators seeking licenses to post a performance bond they could forfeit if they fail to properly dispose of retired spacecraft. The FCC formulas for determining the appropriate bond could mean tens of millions of dollars in added costs for geostationary satellite operators and up to $100 million in added cost for megaconstellations in lower orbits. 

The FCC thinks introducing such a bond could spur the creation of a bond instrument that would allow operators to satisfy this requirement without undue expense, but SIA and AIA both view the bond as detrimental. AIA went so far as to suggest that the FCC’s bond requirement could have the opposite impact the FCC intends. 

“The formula for the bond requirement disincentivizes operators from using more durable, longer-lived commercial systems or financing innovations in on-orbit debris mitigation, mission extension, and disposal services,” AIA wrote. “It instead incentivizes operators to use shorter-lived spacecraft, resulting in additional replacements, more launches, and even greater orbital debris risk.”

Therese Jones, the Satellite Industry Association’s senior director of policy, said the trade group’s members didn’t disagree with everything proposed in the FCC’s 119-page rulemaking report and order. 

“There is appreciation for where the FCC worked with other government agencies to create new rules and I would say there is the most support for items that reflect existing government standards,” she said by email. “The concern largely comes from wanting to have a thorough record for areas where the FCC deviates from existing standards, as the reasoning for this deviation is not clarified.”

AIA takes issue with all of it, however. 

“We would like the FCC to delay considering the overall orbital debris items slated for consideration at the April meeting to allow for more time to consider and seek comments on the specific points raised, which could have impacts on various parts of what is being proposed,” Mike French, AIA’s vice president for space systems said by email.