House committee questions FCC orbital debris rule

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WAILEA, Hawaii — Ahead of a Federal Communications Commission vote on a proposal to set a five-year deadline for deorbiting low Earth orbit satellites, leaders of the House Science Committee are questioning the FCC’s authority to do so.

FCC commissioners will take up at their Sept. 29 open meeting a proposal released earlier in the month that would require operators of LEO satellites to deorbit their satellites as soon as possible after the end of their mission and in no more than five years. The rule, which would take effect in two years, would apply to satellites licensed by the FCC as well as those seeking U.S. market access.

However, the bipartisan leadership of the House Science Committee, in a Sept. 27 letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, asked the FCC to delay consideration of the proposal, citing concerns about “unilateral” action they believe the FCC is taking with the rule. The letter was signed by the chair and ranking member of the full committee, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), as well as the chair and ranking member of the space subcommittee, Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas).

“[W]e understand the importance of supporting a safe, sustainable space environment,” stated the letter. “However, we are concerned that the Commission’s proposal to promulgate rules on this matter could create uncertainty and potentially conflicting guidance.”

One issue is the question of whether the FCC has the authority to establish such rules, something the committee also raised questions about in 2020 when the commission first considered such a rule. “As we stated in 2020, regulatory action by the FCC at this time, without clear authority from Congress, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the Commission’s work, and at worst undermine U.S. economic competitiveness and leadership in space,” the congressional letter argued.

The committee leaders also criticized the FCC for acting on its own as the National Space Council seeks to coordinate actions among agencies. The FCC proposal “poses the potential for creating confusion in an area that has historically been closely coordinated,” the letter stated, mentioning actions like direction given to NASA in a July orbital debris implementation plan to study if the existing 25-year deobrbit guideline should be revised.

The letter suggested the committee could seek to overturn the FCC rule if commissioners approve it. The letter called on the FCC to work with the committee on the issue, which “would ensure that procedural measures such as the Congressional Review Act are not necessary.” That act allows Congress to pass a “joint resolution of disapproval” to overturn rules enacted by federal agencies.

Industry feedback

In filings with the FCC, satellite operators expressed support in general for the proposed five-year rule, but requested some adjustments for how some satellites or constellations are treated,

In a joint filing, EchoStar, Iridium, OneWeb and SES asked the FCC to allow for waivers to the five-year rule for satellites for “good cause,” such as those that have suffered an anomaly or other event beyond the operator’s control. The FCC, they added, should also provide objective criteria for evaluating those waiver requests.

“Such a minor change,” they write, “provides greater certainty to all NGSO operators as they continue to develop and deploy new and innovative satellite networks.”

In another filing, HawkEye 360, Planet and Spire Global made a similar request, stating that the reliability of post-mission disposal should be calculated “based on nominal mission operations.” They also asked the FCC to remove language about potential future, more stringent, rules for “large constellations,” noting that the FCC hasn’t defined what constitutes a large constellation.

Kepler Communications, in its own letter to the FCC, also sought the ability to get a waiver to the five-year rule “for satellite failures that are attributable to events or issues that are beyond the operator’s control,” as well as request a definition of “large constellation” before attempting to place any specific rules for such systems.

None of the companies, though, formally objected to the five-year rule in general or questioned the FCC’s authority to seek it. Two orbital debris experts, Dan Oltrogge of COMSPOC and Darren McKnight of LeoLabs, praised the FCC for proposing the rule in their own filing. The current 25-year rule, they write, “is effectively a policy‐sanctioned graveyard orbit that is near and above many operational spacecraft” at altitudes of 490 to 625 kilometers.

One company, Astroscale U.S., argued that the revised rule alone was not enough since it does not cap overall environmental risk. “The United States will not see the momentous decrease in risk to operational satellites desired, even with the shortened post-mission disposal period, unless current regulations cease to underrepresent the environmental risk of failed spacecraft within a system,” the company wrote, calling for the FCC to produce “a regular cadence of orbital debris regulation updates.”