FAA wants rocket jockeys to clean up after their space launch parties

Have you seen orbit? There's junk everywhere

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed rules for commercial space launch companies to address orbital debris, a growing threat to spacecraft and satellites.

Detailed this week in a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) [PDF], the FAA wants commercial space operators to take responsibility for disposing of the upper stages of their launch vehicles, and offers them five options to implement this.

The options include conducting a controlled re-entry; an uncontrolled atmospheric disposal; moving the upper stage to a storage or graveyard orbit; retrieving the upper stage within five years; or pushing it into an Earth-escape orbit.

However, the FAA proposes that operators should be allowed up to 25 years in which the upper stage is removed from orbit using the uncontrolled or natural decay method.

The agency notes that an increasing number of launch operators are putting satellites and other hardware into space, and that launches are occurring at an increasing rate.

For example, the recent trend towards satellite broadband services has seen companies such as OneWeb, Viasat, and Starlink all lofting their own constellations of orbital hardware, with Amazon also planning to enter the game with Project Kuiper. Starlink alone has now launched more than 5,000 satellites into low Earth orbit.

Launches can result in unwanted debris such as fragmented material, non-functional spacecraft, rocket bodies, and mission-related items such as explosive bolts. As more launches occur, space is becoming increasingly crowded with orbital debris, and if nothing is done to curb the growth in debris, it risks rendering certain orbits too risky to use and present a hazard to ongoing space operations.

According to the FAA, the number of orbital objects 10cm or greater in size is estimated to be over 23,000, with half a million objects between 1 and 10cm, and upwards of 100 million objects larger than 1mm.

The greatest contributor to this swathe of orbital debris is now collisions between large objects such as upper stages, the FAA said, hence the proposed rules to attempt to limit the threat.

The FAA says operators licensed to perform launches with a planned altitude greater than 150km must submit an Orbital Debris Assessment Plan (ODAP) prior to each operation. They will also require that any debris fragments greater than 5mm in size must be removed from highly used regions within 25 years.

Of those five disposal options, launch operators may choose to dispose of the debris within 30 days of mission completion through the controlled disposal, maneuvering to a disposal orbit or Earth-escape orbit methods.

Alternatively, the operator could retrieve the debris within five years of mission completion, or allow for atmospheric uncontrolled disposal or natural decay within 25 years, if the debris disposal meets the risk criteria.

If a launch operator cannot demonstrate that it will remove all debris larger than 5mm from orbit within 25 years, it will be required to prevent such objects from separating from the launch vehicle by redesigning the separation system or by some other means.

However, for the lowest region of low Earth orbit – below 600km – smaller pieces of debris may reasonably be expected to burn up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere within the allowable time limit, the FAA said.

The FAA claims that the regulations should not hinder US companies from competing in the international launch market because other countries with space industries are also expected to comply with guidelines from the IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee), and some regulations are already stricter than the requirements it is proposing. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) wants to implement a zero debris approach by 2030, it said.

Recently, a student project put together by students at Brown University, Rhode Island, demonstrated the feasibility of using a deployable drag sail to de-orbit satellites, at least small ones such as the CubeSat design it used.

Also this year, a Japanese company called Astroscale proposed a "trash collector" satellite that can rendezvous with and collect multiple defunct satellites in a single mission before de-orbiting them.

The FAA's proposal is only that. A 90-day public comment period is set to begin once the recommended rules are published in the Federal Register in the coming days, after which the agency will presumably take account of feedback on the idea. ®

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