Clean up orbit first, then we can think about space factories, says FCC

It's hard to make things out there when dust-sized particles can destroy them

The US Federal Communications Commission is looking at how it can help kickstart manufacturing in space, but said orbital debris needs to be addressed first.

In a meeting held August 5, the FCC voted unanimously (4-0) to open proceedings on in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) to examine what sort of opportunities and challenges would be created by moving some industrial processes above Earth.

ISAM, the agency said in a statement, "has the potential to build entire industries, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, and advance America's economic, scientific, technological, and national security interests."

The FCC's notice of inquiry will look into uses of ISAM including in-flight satellite refueling, inspections and repairs of orbital spacecraft, "transforming materials through manufacturing while in space," and debris removal, something that FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said is essential to promoting safety and responsibility in space.

"There are thousands of metric tons of junk in space that if left unaddressed will constrain those new opportunities in the skies above and ISAM could help improve this environment," Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Space debris stands to be a serious impediment to orbital activity in the near future. Millions of chunks of different sizes are whizzing round Earth, and even the smallest have the potential to cause catastrophic damage to other spacecraft.

According to NASA, debris in Earth's orbit travels at speeds of up to 17,500mph (28,163kph). The agency notes that objects as small and fragile as paint flecks have had enough force behind them to damage space shuttle windows.

"In fact, millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit," NASA said.

The agency added that there are approximately 100 million pieces of orbital debris measuring about a millimeter.

FCC commissioner Nathan Simington expressed concern over orbital debris, saying in a statement that, as the FCC is considering updates to its space debris rules (last updated in 2020), it was crucial to ensure similar rules apply to ISAM and other space operations. In particular, Simington said the FCC needs to plan now for how to deal with debris created by ISAM operations.

The FCC's role in space rule making involves anything to do with communications from space to a ground site in the US, including making rules to help satellites avoid damage due to orbital debris.

The FCC said its ISAM strategy dovetails with the Office of Science and Technology Policy's ISAM National Strategy [PDF], as well as being part of the commission's broader efforts at updating its rules "for the new space age." As part of that update, the FCC is also looking at its satellite rules and ensuring satellite companies have access to newly allocated spectrum bands while testing new spacecraft. 

Earlier last week, the FCC freed up additional spectrum in the 17GHz band "to support the growing demand for space-based services," and is working to clear a path for satellites to operate in the 50.4-51.4GHz range, Rosenworcel said. Additionally, the FCC's division responsible for "satellite matters" has had its headcount increased by 38 percent "to keep up with it all," Rosenworcel added. 

"No one imagined commercial space tourism taking hold, no one believed crowd-funded satellites and mega constellations at low Earth orbit were possible, and no one could have conceived of the sheer popularity of space entrepreneurship. But it's all happening," Rosenworcel said. ®

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