FCC updates orbital debris rules for the first time since 2004

The FCC has finally gotten around to updating its 15-year-old orbital debris rules, adding new requirements and streamlining the approval process. With hundreds of satellites going up every year into increasingly crowded orbits, these rules are more important than ever.

In stating the necessity for mitigating the accumulation of orbital debris, the FCC noted that while some like to downplay the problem, there is already significant danger:

Studies indicate that already in some regions of LEO, the number of new objects and fragments generated from collisions exceeds those removed by natural atmospheric drag. Other regions have sufficient densities of orbital debris to lead some analysts to conclude that they are close to or have already reached a “runaway” status, where the debris population will grow indefinitely due to collisions between debris objects.

To be clear, the rules are not anything along the lines of “your spacecraft can’t break up into more than 20 pieces” or anything like that. They’re more along the lines of requiring satellite operators to show that they’re operating in a safe and sustainable way, making guarantees like the ability to track or deorbit the craft if there’s a problem.

The new rules are not wildly different from those that came before, but rather reflect the new reality of satellite constellations thousands strong and changes resulting from improvements to technology and launch methods. (The 2004 rules have been tweaked here and there, but this is the first “comprehensive” update since then.)

For instance, with launches of multiple spacecraft like SpaceX’s StarLink satellites, it’s important that each craft is uniquely identifiable, trackable either via ground radar or some other telemetry method, and so on. The new rules require satellite operators to disclose exactly how and to what extent this is done, and also whether and how they plan to share things like orbit adjustments and other maneuvers with spacecraft tracking authorities.

They also have to estimate the likelihood of collision with large and small objects, the possibility that the satellite will fail, and what risk that creates for anyone on the surface.

The biggest change in rules is probably the requirement that any spacecraft going above the International Space Station be capable of some kind of maneuvering in order to avoid collisions.

Considering what goes on in those orbits — imaging and communications, mainly — maneuvering is something most craft need to do already. But if there’s no requirement, and the price of satellites and launches continues to drop, it would only be a matter of time before someone decides to spray a thousand tiny, dumb satellites into orbit with empty assurances that they definitely won’t hit anything.

And the thing is, if the FCC doesn’t make rules, no one will. It’s strange that the same agency is responsible for broadband speeds, obscenity on TV, and orbital debris, but that’s just how it is.

As Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted in her statement accompanying the new rules: “We need to recognize the FCC has unique authority. We are the only ones with jurisdiction over commercial space activities. That makes our work to update the agency’s 2004 orbital debris policies really important.”

Although they work in concert with NASA, NOAA, and international authorities trying to develop global best practices, the FCC is the one making the rules when it comes to the vast majority of satellites going up today.

One proposal not adopted today but which the FCC is publicizing in order to generate discussion is a potential requirement for companies to put up a bond that’s redeemable when their satellite is successfully retired as planned.

Essentially a company that wants to launch a satellite would be asked to put down, just for example, $10,000 in a government bond before it goes to orbit. A few years later, when the satellite has finished its job and is ready to be scuttled, that $10,000 could be redeemed if all goes according to plan. But if the craft fails, or goes out of control, or otherwise departs from the plan, the $10,000 is forfeited.

The idea makes sense intuitively — a sort of security deposit for spacecraft — but the specifics are very difficult to work out. So the FCC is soliciting comments to see how best to approach the requirement, or whether to at all.

You can read the full set of new rules and justification thereof at the FCC’s website.