The FCC will fight space debris by requiring the elimination of satellites in 5 years or less

The FCC will fight space debris by requiring the elimination of satellites in 5 years or less

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of satellites in low Earth orbit like those launched by SpaceX and OneWeb.

The Federal Communications Commission has a plan to minimize space waste by requiring satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) to be disposed of no later than five years after decommissioning.

A proposal released yesterday by FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel would adopt “a first-ever rule requiring operators of non-geostationary satellites to de-orbit their satellites after they cease operations to minimize the risk of collisions that would create debris.” It is slated for an FCC vote on Sept. 29.

The five-year rule would be legally binding, unlike the current 25-year standard based on a NASA recommendation proposed in the 1990s.

“Currently, operators with objects in LEO are recommended to ensure that their spacecraft are either removed from orbit immediately after the mission or left in an orbit that will decay and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a maximum time frame of 25 years to mitigate the creation of more orbital debris. However, we believe it is no longer sustainable to let satellites in LEO de-orbit for decades,” the FCC’s proposal reads.

The new rule “would require space station operators to plan their disposal through uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere to complete disposal as soon as possible, and no more than five years after the mission is terminated,” a datasheet says. information from the FCC on the proposed order. The plan includes “a two-year grandfathering period for the new requirement to reduce any potential burden on operators.”

Current exempt satellites

Satellites already in orbit will be exempt from the new requirement if approved as written. “For satellites already authorized by the Commission that have not yet been launched, we will provide for a two-year grandfathering period, starting on September 29, 2022, in order to allow operators to integrate the phase-out requirement five-year post-mission in their mission goals,” the FCC said.

The rule would apply to US-licensed satellites. It would also apply to non-US satellite operators if they seek to access the US market, for example by providing broadband service to US residents.

It will be possible to obtain derogations from the five-year plan on a case-by-case basis, in particular for scientific research missions. The FCC proposal says NASA “expressed concern that a five-year limit would impact NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) CubeSat missions, which rely on decay natural orbit to manage post-mission orbital lifetime and impose greater limits on acceptable launch opportunities. The five-year requirement “may be unduly burdensome” at certain altitudes, the FCC said.

Starlink’s plan should comply with the new rule

The Starlink broadband division of SpaceX, the largest LEO satellite operator, would apparently comply with the new rule without any changes to current operations. Lower altitudes help speed up disposal: When SpaceX requested approval to use altitudes of 540-570 km instead of the 1,110-1,325 km it originally got approval for, it said to the FCC that the deorbiting of this lower range can be achieved in a few months.

SpaceX said its 540-570 km deorbit sequence would consist of an “active” phase that takes a few weeks for each vehicle and a “passive” phase that lasts several weeks to several months, “with the exact time depending on the solar activity. In the worst case, deorbiting would take even less than five years due to the low altitude, SpaceX said:

While SpaceX expects its satellites to operate nominally and actively deorbit as described above, in the unlikely event that a vehicle is unable to complete its scheduled disposal maneuver, the denser atmospheric conditions at an altitude of 540-570 km provide fully passive redundancy to SpaceX’s active disposal procedures. . The natural orbital decay of a satellite at 1,110-1,325 km takes hundreds of years to enter Earth’s atmosphere, but lower satellites will take less than five years to do so, even under the most conservative assumptions. unfavorable.

The FCC approved SpaceX’s plan to cut altitudes in half, in part because the lower altitudes would help prevent orbital debris buildup. The new five-year rule would apply to satellites in Starlink’s range and above, particularly “space stations terminating their missions or passing through the low Earth orbit region below 2,000 kilometers”.

Describing the debris problem, the FCC’s pending proposal said:

Missing satellites, abandoned rocket cores and other debris now fill the space environment, creating challenges for future missions. Additionally, more than 4,800 satellites were currently in orbit at the end of last year, and the vast majority of them are commercial satellites operating at altitudes below 2,000 km, the upper limit for LEO. Many of them have been launched in the past couple of years alone, and future growth projections suggest there are many more to come.

Starlink has permission from the FCC to launch nearly 12,000 satellites. While the Starlink satellites currently in orbit are between 540 and 570 km, around 7,500 of its approved satellites would orbit between 335 km and 346 km. SpaceX is also requesting authorization for 30,000 additional satellites at altitudes ranging from 340 km to 614 km.

OneWeb operates LEO broadband satellites at an altitude of around 1,200 km, with de-orbit plans calling for disposal times of five years or less. Amazon plans to launch a few thousand satellites at altitudes of 590 km, 610 km and 630 km.

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