Space debris floating around earth, not to scale but accurate in density

Space debris removal deadline cut to five years by FCC

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to reduce the deadline for the removal of unused satellites in low-Earth orbit from 25 years to five.

Out-of-service satellites must be removed from the Earth's orbit “as soon as practicable and no more than five years following the end of their mission,” according to the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to adopt the draft rule, published earlier this month, relating to all spacecraft that end their lives in orbits at altitudes of 2,000km (1,242 miles) or below. The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order is adopted and would include both US-licensed satellites as well as those licensed by other jurisdictions and seeking US market access. Satellites already in space would be exempt.

The previous voluntary Nasa guidelines published in the 1990s allowed operators to wait as long as 25 years to remove the satellites, a timeline that many experts consider too long. 

“25 years is a long time. There is no reason to wait that long anymore, especially in low-Earth orbit,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC chairwoman, speaking at Thursday’s meeting, pointing out that many pieces of space junk currently in orbit date from as far back as the 1950s. 

At the moment, estimates suggest there are over 100 million pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, ranging in size from a penny to an entire rocket booster.

The proposal comes as the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years. With contributions from companies such as SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb, as many as 18,000 new satellites could be floating above the planet by 2025. To date, Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone has launched about 3,000 satellites to space for its space-based internet service, Starlink

“We believe it is no longer sustainable to leave satellites in LEO to deorbit over decades,” the FCC proposal stated. 

“At risk is more than the $279bn-a-year satellite and launch industries and the jobs that depend on them. Left unchecked, orbital debris could block all of these benefits and reduce opportunities across nearly every sector of our economy.”

The FCC said there will be a two-year grace period, starting on September 29 2022, to allow organisations that previously obtained approval for a future satellite launch time to develop a disposal plan for their spacecraft. The FCC said it would also grant waivers case-by-case after Nasa expressed concerns that the five-year limit would impact its CubeSat missions.

With a higher amount of spacecraft being sent into space, the likelihood of fallen space junk causing harm to people and other spacecraft increases. A recent study published in Nature Astronomy estimated the chance of falling rocket and satellite parts getting through the Earth’s atmosphere, finding there is a one in 10 chance of one or more casualties from space debris occurring over the next 10 years. 

In May 2021, the International Space Station (ISS) was hit by a piece of space junk which took a significant chunk out of its 17m-long robotic arm. In November, the ISS was forced to alter its orbit in order to avoid a segment of a now-defunct Chinese satellite that was headed on a collision course.

With this rule, the Commission could reduce this risk before it becomes a crisis, while also supporting a more sustainable space sector.

“If thousands of new satellites launch every year and are replenished every five, 10 or 15 years, yet take 25 years to demise once the mission is done, the rate of debris accumulation will grow rapidly and perhaps unsustainably,” wrote commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a statement accompanying the news. “With this order, we take the practical step of reducing demise times in LEO to no more than five years, a timeframe we know is readily achievable.”

The FCC plan had been questioned by some US lawmakers who have said the rules could create “conflicting guidance”, citing questions about the FCC’s authority to regulate orbital debris and concerns about a lack of coordination with other agencies.

However, the criticism was not enough to change the lawmakers' opinions, all of whom voted to approve the motion. 

Over the last few years, there has been considerable discussion by space agencies, lawmakers and private companies about how to tackle the problem of space debris, ranging from policy suggestions (such as the introduction of orbital-use fees) to high-tech active space clean-ups (using satellites armed with claws, nets, magnets and other devices).

In order to address the issue of space junk, the European Space Agency is planning a mission to attempt the capture and removal of space debris with a four-armed robot, while the UN issued a set of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2010, subsequently reinforced in 2018.

In contrast to the proposed FCC rules, the UN guidelines are not legally binding and do not give specifics as to how mitigation activities should be implemented or controlled.

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