National Space Council in discussions on FCC orbital debris policies

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WASHINGTON — The National Space Council is in discussions with the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies about new orbital debris mitigation regulations after the FCC deferred a decision last month on a controversial set of measures.

In a May 6 podcast by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, said he was concerned that some of the FCC’s proposals, including those that would have required “performance bonds” for satellite operators, could put American companies at a disadvantage.

“We are the only country in the world, in some cases driven by legislation, that charges very high licensing fees,” he said. “If we require further burdens, such as performance bonds or indemnification insurance, and those are placed on top of the existing fee, I think that will be to the detriment of the satellite industry.”

The FCC issued a draft of revised orbital debris mitigation regulations April 2. Those rules, which included a requirement for operators to indemnify the government for damage their satellites might cause, as well as a bond of up to $100 million that operators would forfeit if they failed to properly dispose of the satellites after the end of their lives, faced strong opposition from industry and Congress.

The FCC, at its April 23 open meeting, deferred most of those rules, including bonds and indemnification, for additional study. “If the U.S. wants to be a leader in the current space race, our regulatory processes can not be more expensive and burdensome than those of other nations,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said at the meeting.

Part of the criticism of the FCC draft rules was how they were created and whether the agency had the expertise to develop them. “The thing that I didn’t like about it so much was just that there’s a lack of technical competency behind some of this stuff. It’s not transparent,” said Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in orbital debris, during an April 29 SpaceNews webinar on the topic.

Pace said he understood why the FCC was involved in the topic, noting the agency’s involvement dates back nearly two decades when it was not clear what federal agency could provide oversight regarding orbital debris. “Recalling some of the discussions at the time, I think it’s fair to say they were pressed into service,” he said.

He welcomed the FCC’s decision to defer action on the more controversial elements of the proposed regulations, saying he believed commissioners were aware of the potential impacts of their rules on satellite operators.

“I think the commission is interested in trying to make sure that we don’t place undue burdens, but that at the same time we provide incentives for ensuring that the space environment remains sustainable for the long term,” he said. “We’re having a long dialogue with the commission on that, and that’s a subject that Commerce will also be leading on.”

Space Policy Directive 3, signed by President Donald Trump in June 2018, directed the Commerce Department to take the lead on civil space traffic management. Pace said that coordination between the Commerce and Defense Departments on that transfer of responsibility was “terrific,” but the Commerce Department’s work was hampered by a lack of funding.

“I think the main thing we need is support from Congress on making sure that we robustly fund the efforts,” he said. “They’ve done a lot with incredibly small amounts of money, but we, of course, are going to be urging Congress to support the president’s budget request for that office if we’re going to take the next step.”

The Commerce Department requested $15 million for the Office of Space Commerce in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal in February, primarily to support its space traffic management work. Congress, though, rejected a $10 million budget for the office in fiscal year 2020, and instead directed the department to undertake a study on that proposed transfer of space traffic management responsibilities.

Pace also revealed in the podcast that the National Space Council is working on an update of the overall national space policy. Each presidential administration typically publishes a national space policy, most recently in 2010 by the Obama administration. The Trump administration amended that policy in 2017 with Space Policy Directive 1, directing NASA to return humans to the moon, but has yet to carry out a full update of the policy.

“We envision a lot of continuity with past policy, but with all the activities that happened in recent years, we thought it’s probably time for an update,” he said. “We’ll be working on that over the next few months.”