U.S. risks ‘junking up our skies’ with space debris: Rosenworcel

The FCC voted unanimously Thursday to make it easier for small satellite operators to get their constellations approved and launched, but some commissioners are calling for greater efforts to manage space debris.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said smaller satellite operators should not have to jump through the same regulatory hoops as larger, heavier satellites that might stay in low Earth orbit for many years.

“There is no reason why a satellite the size of a shoebox, with the life expectancy of a guinea pig, should be regulated the same way as a satellite the size of a school bus that will stay in orbit for centuries,” he said in prepared comments.

Under the new structure, those who qualify will see a shorter and less expensive application process. The new framework applies to constellations of up to 10 small satellites and removes a lot of red tape associated with the older system.

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But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the FCC over the past year has approved more than 13,000 new satellites for launch—nearly three times as many satellites currently in orbit right now. “We have not done anything new to address orbital debris,” she said.

Considering the size of new constellations and the number of objects headed to space, “we’re going to start junking up our skies,” she said. “We’ve got to move faster.”

The space debris issue is generating bipartisan concern. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, in his prepared remarks noted that one large non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) operator recently launched 60 satellites, but three didn’t work as planned, and they’re being monitored by the company for deorbiting. 

“This is just one example of many more mishaps likely to come. Given the Commission’s adoption of rules that could result in thousands of satellites being put into orbit and industry’s activity in starting to launch, we cannot sidestep this issue any further,” O’Rielly said. 

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Last year, the FCC launched a review of orbital debris rules. Commissioner Brendan Carr at the time said he was glad the commission recognized the expertise that exists elsewhere across the federal government, such as NASA, the Department of Defense and the FAA and was happy the item considered other agencies that could affect the decision-making process.   

O’Rielly on Thursday acknowledged the orbital debris proceeding, which the commission kicked off last year. “While I understand that other federal agencies with different expertise have been considering this matter and the Commission is part of an interagency working group, it makes most sense to consider the issue expeditiously, not two years from now.  If others fail to act, the Commission may have to shoulder the responsibility,” he added.

The FCC said the new licensing process is optional and intended to cover smaller-scale operations rather than the large constellations of satellites that will provide broadband service or other satellite systems that require constant spectrum availability.