Satellite operators including Iridium, SES, and OneWeb are hoping the Federal Communications Commission will change the wording in upcoming end-of-life requirements for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to allow for greater leeway around exemptions.
Earlier this month the FCC outlined plans to adopt rules requiring LEO operators to dispose of satellites no more than five years following the end of their mission, and ideally ‘as soon as practicable.'
FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the proposal was necessary to support the rapidly growing space economy.
"Satellites can stay in orbit for decades, careening around our increasingly crowded skies as space junk and raising the risk of collisions that can ruin satellites we count on," she said.
The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order is adopted, and include both US-licensed satellites as well as those licensed by other jurisdictions but seeking US market access.
In reply to the FCC, reportedly by Law360 and the Register, satellite operators Iridium Communications, HughesNet operator EchoStar, SES, and OneWeb said it would encourage the FCC to “to make minor adjustments” to language regarding the end-of-life mission requirements.
Specifically, the operators want the Commission to “adopt explicit language” recognizing that operators may seek and obtain waivers of the five-year post-mission disposal rule for “good cause”; and “articulate objective criteria” for evaluating these waiver requests.
“The Satellite Operators support the Commission’s overall actions in the mitigation of orbital debris and appreciate the strides it is taking to preserve our orbits,” the letter concludes.
Currently, there are no firm rules for de-orbiting LEO satellites, but the FCC usually licenses satellites with an industry-standard 25-year rule used in both international orbital debris mitigation guidelines and US government standard practices.
The new five-year rule comes after the FCC delayed consideration of a similar rule in April 2020. FCC commissioners elected then to get more feedback on a potential change to the 25-year guideline.
However, the effectiveness of any five-year rule is up for debate. In 2020, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office warned that reducing the post-mission lifetime from 25 years to 5 years would result in only a 10 percent decrease in the orbital debris population over 200 years, which is said “is not a statistically significant benefit.”
This month also saw the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) publish its own Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices guide developed in cooperation with Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX which recommends that satellites deorbit within five years of the end of life, with a goal of one year either through natural orbital decay or active measures.
US Gov considers reimbursing for commercial satellites lost in war
US defense and intelligence agencies are discussing how they might compensate satellite companies if their spacecraft is damaged during an armed conflict.
If private sector satellites become part of a hybrid public-private space architecture, “then we have some obligation to think about commercial protection,” David Gauthier, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s Commercial and Business Operations Group, said at the Intelligence and National Security Summit hosted by AFCEA International, and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and reported by SpaceNews.
“We’re engaging with our industry partners to have that discussion more fully. And everything is still on the table.” Gauthier said.
At the same event, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the prospect of a conflict where satellites would be targeted “does require us to think about how we contract effectively, including issues like indemnification.”
A recent report from the Aerospace Corp. warned commercial space actors risk getting caught in the crossfire during international conflict, either a result of helping an enemy or if a satellite is misidentified as a military system.
While signal jamming is common, there have been no open attacks by nation-states against satellites operated by other countries. The US, China, Russia, and India have all demonstrated Anti Satellite weapons (known as ASATs) on their own systems.
However, during a recent UN United Nations working group meeting on reducing space threats, Russian representative Konstantin Vorontsov warned commercial satellites could become a target in future.
He said: “The use by the United States and its allies of the elements of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure in outer space for military purposes…It seems like our colleagues do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect involvement in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”