FCC boss wants tighter rules to prevent devastating satellite explosions in orbit

Rosenworcel suggests bringing risk down to 1 in 1,000 for debris-emitting blasts – will other countries play ball?

The chair of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has called on the US watchdog to tighten up rules that aim to prevent accidental satellite explosions that would litter Earth's orbit with debris.

The FCC is not short of rules and guidelines around orbital debris, but the call by the regulator's boss, Jessica Rosenworcel, adds a quantitative metric that satellites must meet – the probability of a debris-generating explosion must be less than 1 in 1,000.

"We can no longer afford to launch new satellites into our skies without being thoughtful about space sustainability," said Rosenworcel. "Our orbital debris mitigation efforts will help preserve the orbital environment to protect services we rely on and allow new services to be launched."

A satellite or rocket body that has not been passivated has the potential to explode. The harsh environment of space can cause components and fuel lines to degrade, meaning that any remaining propellant might combust. And then there is the problem posed by batteries. The resulting litter from explosions in orbit can put other craft in peril, and cause more debris to be spread, sparking a cascading disaster. In short: No debris-emitting explosions, please.

The FCC has rules around passivation [PDF] and, in 2022, adopted a rule requiring satellite operators in low Earth orbit dispose of their satellites within five years of their mission ending.

However, there is still the issue of a satellite unexpectedly and accidentally exploding. Current guidance calls for minimizing the probability of an accidental explosion but stops short of setting a figure. Rosenworcel has called for that figure to be less than 1 in 1,000.

The 1 in 1,000 matches NASA's standard, published in the Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) [PDF], which state: "the integrated probability of debris-generating explosions for all credible failure modes of each spacecraft and upper stage (excluding small particle impacts) is less than 0.001 (1 in 1,000) during deployment and mission operations."

Chiara Manfletti, CEO of Neuraspace, a company specializing in debris tracking and avoidance, cautiously welcomed the extra clarity but warned that different countries have different regulations.

She told The Register: "We are seeing the FCC progressively tackle the issue of space sustainability by introducing new rules. Certainly, such rules add clarity as to what is expected and close gaps in missing regulation. In fact, while international regulation will be a longer-term achievement, certainly, national rules are easier to implement. Neuraspace sees such initiatives positively.

"It will be interesting to see how companies possibly 'adapt' to countries potentially having different rules that need to be followed and if that will have any impact on where companies decide to establish and grow their businesses. That is always one of the cited downsides of introducing regulation, but I am not convinced that will be the case, as we already see companies adopting space sustainability measures without regulations (albeit more slowly than if a full set of rules was already in place)."

As for the rules being called for by Rosenworcel, the FCC said they would be phased in one year after publication in the Federal Register. ®

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