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FCC Updates Orbital Debris Regulations for Satellite Operators

By Rachel Jewett | April 23, 2020


Image of orbital debris generated from a distant oblique angle. Photo: NASA

The FCC on Thursday voted to update its satellite rules on orbital debris, specifically clarifying disclosures that satellite companies must make regarding debris mitigation. The Report and Order approved has not been released yet.

The changes include requiring that satellite applicants assign numerical values to collision risk, probability of successful post-mission disposal, and casualty risk associated with those satellites that will re-enter earth’s atmosphere. Satellite applicants will also have new disclosure requirements including ones relating to protecting inhabitable spacecraft, maneuverability, and trackability and identification.

But some items that were in the FCC’s draft order were moved to a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, inviting additional comment on on orbital debris mitigation measures related to the probability of accidental explosions; collision risk and casualty risk for satellite constellations on a systemwide basis; and on requiring maneuverability for space stations located above a certain altitude in the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), and limiting post-mission orbital lifetime. The Commission also plans to seek comment on adopting an indemnification requirement, and on the use of a surety bond tied to post-mission disposal.

The FCC has not comprehensively updated its rules regarding orbital debris since they were first adopted in 2004. The Commission said these proposed changes and further discussion to address industry changes like the use of small satellites like cubesats, and plans for constellations of satellites operating in Non-Geostationary Orbits (NGSOs).