FCC proposes new rules to tackle space debris

In an attempt to clean up the skies above, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is proposing new rules that would require satellite operators in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to dispose of their satellites within five years of completing their missions.

The full commission will consider the proposal at its September 29 meeting. If adopted, the rules will shorten the existing 25-year guideline for de-orbiting satellites after they’re no longer functioning.

Rosenworcel announced her plan at the National Space Council meeting, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris, in Houston, Texas, on Friday.

“Since 1957 humanity has put thousands of satellites into the sky, often with the understanding that they were cheaper to abandon than take out of orbit. These satellites can stay in orbit for decades, careening around our increasingly crowded skies as space junk and raising the risk of collisions that can ruin satellites we count on,” Rosenworcel said in a statement.

But there’s no reason to continue with the old practice of waiting 25 years before deorbiting spacecraft, she said. The space economy is moving fast and for it to continue to grow, “we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to expand,” she said.

The proposed Report and Order circulated to the FCC commissioners last week would require satellites ending their mission in or passing through the low-Earth orbit region below 2,000 kilometers altitude to deorbit as soon as practicable but no later than five years after their mission is complete, according to the FCC.

The FCC also said it’s updating its regulatory frameworks and adding more engineers and policy experts to speed up its commercial satellite licensing processes. In addition, it’s making more spectrum available for the nation’s space ambitions, including identifying spectrum for the first time to support commercial launches and proposing new spectrum sharing rules to increase competition.