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WASHINGTON — The Commerce Department office that licenses commercial remote sensing systems is studying whether it should close a potential loophole in how companies comply with orbital debris mitigation rules.

The Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) division of the Office of Space Commerce will formally publish a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register March 8 on the issue of debris mitigation regulations for systems it licenses. The RFI was released for public inspection March 7.

The RFI notes that while CRSRA had for two decades required companies seeking remote sensing licenses to provide a post-mission disposal plan for their satellites, the office dropped the requirement in 2020 as part of a broader revision of commercial remote sensing regulations. The rationale at the time was that nearly all systems seeking remote sensing licenses also had licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, which requires licensees to have orbital debris mitigation plans.

“To avoid duplicative regulation, Commerce opted to defer to FCC license requirements regarding orbital debris and spacecraft disposal, and therefore removed license conditions requiring specific orbital debris or spacecraft disposal practices in final rule,” CRSRA stated in the RFI.

However, the office noted that, since then, it has seen “an increasing number” of multinational systems that seek commercial remote sensing licenses but have communications licenses in other countries, and thus do not have FCC licenses.

“CRSRA is also sensitive to emerging communications methods not currently licensed by FCC, meaning a satellite using such methods would not be subject to FCC disposal and orbital debris mitigation requirement,” the RFI states. That is an apparent reference to optical communications systems that do not use radio-frequency spectrum managed by the FCC.

The office is seeking input from the remote sensing industry on whether it should restore some degrees of orbital debris regulations on all licensees or only those who do not have FCC licenses. It will also consider “narrow guidance not rising to the level of a rulemaking” for how those without FCC licenses can demonstrate “acceptable means of compliance.”

An Office of Space Commerce official previewed the RFI at a Feb. 29 event by the FCC’s Space Bureau marking two decades of FCC orbital debris regulations. “We’re realizing, though, increasingly there are situations where actors don’t get an FCC license,” said Gabriel Swiney, director of the office’s policy, advocacy and international division. “So we have U.S. companies that may only get a remote sensing license in terms of what U.S. government licensing that they get.”

The goal of the effort, he said, is to avoid companies being able to “jurisdiction shop and avoid any sustainability requirements.”

The RFI comes as the White House and Congress consider proposals for authorization and continuing supervision of “novel space activities” that are not currently licensed by any government agencies, from satellite servicing to commercial lunar landers. Those proposals would give the Office of Space Commerce the authority to oversee some or all of those activities.

That would likely include some regulations on orbital debris mitigation and related space sustainability topics. If that happens, “then it’s going to be really important to work in the interagency to implement that,” Swiney said, to ensure that “if there’s multiple regulators, which should be avoided to the extent possible, there’s not duplicative requirements or even overlapping requirements.”

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...