FCC floats 'five-year rule' for hoovering up space junk

Gets some pushback from those wanting permission to keep it hanging around for decades

The US Federal Communications Commission wants to shrink a current requirement for space operators to pull their equipment from low Earth orbit from within 25 years to just five years, according to new rules published yesterday.

The new "five-year rule" would require [PDF] space station operators planning to dispose of their units through uncontrolled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere to complete it as soon as "practicable", and no more than five years following the end of mission.

Previously, if you didn't destroy your satellite immediately, it was OK to leave it in an orbit that would decay over time to the point that it would re-enter Earth's atmosphere "within... 25 years." But the agency said it believed it was "no longer sustainable to leave satellites in LEO to deorbit over decades."

The idea is to tackle a growing amount of space junk that could not only make future launches more dangerous, but which poses a risk to other satellites and spacecraft, and in some instances, when pieces of debris fall back to Earth, potentially poses a risk to people and property on the ground.

The agency noted:

There are more than 4,800 satellites currently operating in orbit as of the end of [2021], and the vast majority of those are commercial satellites operating at altitudes below 2,000 km... Many of these were launched in the past two years alone, and projections for future growth suggest that there are many more to come. As the number of objects in space increases, so too does the probability of collision.

The FCC also noted that the "$279 billion-a-year satellite and launch industries" were also at risk, as was people's access to broadband services.

Interestingly, it also described getting what looked like some pushback from commercial "commenters" whose input was requested last month. It noted that those who supported retaining the 25-year benchmark were all citing NASA's own report, published by its Orbital Debris Program Office, which stated that reducing the 25-year rule to a five-year rule would only lead to a "10 percent debris reduction over 200 years, which NASA had described [PDF] as 'not a statistically significant benefit'."

But there was also support for the five year rule from SpaceX and a "broad" range of other players, including, unsurprisingly, from Anglo-Japanese junk-removing company Astroscale, which observed that operators "formulating designs and plans to adhere to the maximum 25-year requirement has ultimately contributed to the increased congestion around and below the 600-650 kilometer altitude range" with an "associated increase in conjunctions and risk in LEO operations..." as well as an "increasing number of collision avoidance maneuvers" that would hit operators' pockets.

The new regulations will apply to space stations either ending their missions in low-Earth orbit (LEO) or passing through the region. LEO is defined as stretching from Earth's surface up to an altitude of 2,000 kilometers. Crucially, the FCC's remit only extends to US-licensed satellites and systems, although it will also extend to non-US-licensed satellites and systems if they try to enter the US market.

The proposal comes a month after FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said that the "new space age needs new rules and that existing regulations were mainly "designed for a time when going to space was astronomically expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers."

The new rules, widely expected to pass a vote by the comms agency on September 29, represents a second push against space debris by the FCC in recent years. In 2020, there was a large overhaul in space debris rules focusing on disclosing collision risk and casualty risks.

As we pointed out at the time, the issue of space debris is broader than what happens on the ground, because if a defunct satellite smashed into another one, or broke apart, the debris could tear into other satellites and potentially create a runaway chain reaction called the Kessler effect. ®

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