Satellite operators want option to exceed deorbiting rules

The sky is getting crowded, but some think the FCC is moving too fast to clean it up

A group of satellite operators has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider its proposed five-year window to remove orbital junk by adding language that would let them request waivers to exceed the limit. 

Iridium Communications, HughesNet operator EchoStar, Luxembourg-based SES, and OneWeb, currently building a satellite constellation it said will provide global broadband, penned the letter [PDF] earlier this week. The group asked that the FCC "adopt explicit language recognizing that operators may seek and obtain waivers of the five-year post-mission disposal rule for good cause," as well as establish "objective criteria" for evaluating waiver requests.

The FCC proposed its new rule, which would reduce the period space operators have to remove retired equipment from low-Earth orbit (LEO, defined as below 2,000 kilometers) from 25 years to five, earlier this month in a bid to clear up the increasingly crowded space surrounding Earth.

FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said of the proposal that it was necessary to support the rapidly growing space economy. "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.

As noted in previous coverage, the FCC said there were more than 4,800 satellites in orbit of Earth at the end of 2021, with most of those flitting about in LEO. Per the FCC, many of those satellites were launched in the last two years "and projections for future growth suggest that there are many more to come." 

In August, the FCC voted to open proceedings on in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing, or ISAM, which would see some industrial processes moved to Earth orbit to hopefully protect the environment and mitigate climate change.

Rosenworcel said that space debris could be removed by ISAM operations, but FCC commissioner Nathan Simington expressed concern that space debris could impact ISAM operations by damaging equipment. Simington said in a statement that the FCC was considering updating its space debris rules.

Aside from the threat of falling space junk to cities and people, an overabundance of satellites in Earth's orbit has also affected astronomers, who said there is so much orbital hardware that Starlink satellites appear in around a fifth of images snapped by some telescopes. AI algorithms have been developed to fight this, but have only proven to be so effective

SpaceX's second generation of Starlink satellites are designed to minimize light pollution on Earth, but until the Musk-owned company can get its Starship off the ground, it won't be able to launch the new hardware.

The FCC is expected to vote on the five-year proposal on September 29. Whether a waiver option will be added remains to be seen; so far the FCC hasn't responded to our questions asking such. ®

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