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FCC proposes new regulation requiring satellites to be de-orbited five years after mission end

The FCC yesterday announced it is considering a new regulation that would require companies to de-orbit defunct satellites in low Earth orbit no more than five years after the satellite’s shut down.

The order, if adopted by commissioners, would require spacecraft that end their missions in or passing through LEO — defined as altitudes below 2,000 kilometers — dispose of their spacecraft through reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as soon as practicable and no more than five years after the end of the mission. The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order is adopted, and include both U.S.-licensed satellites as well as those licensed by other jurisdictions but seeking U.S. market access.

According to the FCC press release [pdf], this new regulation will be discussed at the next public meeting of the commission on September 29, 2022.

Though in general this rule appears a good idea, there are several legitimate objections to it. NASA’s orbital debris office noted that this rule would only reduce space junk by 10%. Others questioned the FCC’s regulatory authority to do this at all, since its main statutory function is not the regulation satellite operations but the use of the frequencies those satellites use.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • Col Beausabre

    How does the FCC have jurisdiction? What about things that aren’t communication satellites? The congressionally mandated role is to manage the electromagnetic spectrum, not to run space flight, which is NASA’s job. Is NASA failing in that regard? Are they going to try to take over the Federal Railroad Administration next?

  • Col Beausabre: Actually, this isn’t NASA’s job either. Based on a variety of Congressional laws, I would say it either falls to the FAA or the Commerce department.

  • Andi

    From the FCC website:

    “The Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. ”

    Are they claiming jurisdiction due to the fact that the EM spectrum is used to communicate with the satellites?

  • GaryMike

    The FCC is effectively interfering in future free market capitalism.

    I don’t recall them exerting authority over septic tanks.

  • pzatchok

    Soon they will have authority over our cars since they all will be using the internet and cell systems to drive us around.

  • GaryMike

    De-orbiting space junk is a good thing. Highly recommend the practice. It makes for a good community standard (one doubts the commies actually care about such a standard. Irony).

  • sippin_bourbon

    Government power grab. Mr Z posted something about the FCC a few months ago.

    Look for more grabs in the future, as they piecemeal regulatory (never passed by Congress) control for activity above the atmosphere.

  • Concerned

    How about deorbiting about 90% of the objects otherwise known as FCC government employees? That would be a true and welcome reduction in space junk.

  • pzatchok

    What about the space tug industry?

    It might take quite a while to get a nonfunctional satellite refueled or repaired.
    And what about any parts that are parked in orbit for later use?

    And whats the penalty for a satellite that shuts down unexpectedly and just sits up there tumbling out of control?

  • Jeff Wright

    This will keep rocket flights more frequent, yes?

  • Andi

    “I don’t recall them exerting authority over septic tanks.”

    That’s only because septic tanks aren’t on IoT yet.

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