FCC Adopts 5-year Satellite Deorbit Rule Over Objections of House Science Committee

With concerns growing over the number of satellites in Earth orbit and the proliferation of dangerous space debris, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday adopted new rules requiring satellite operators to dispose of spacecraft in low-Earth orbit no later than five years after mission completion despite a warning from the House Science Committee that the move could create uncertainty and conflicting guidelines.

“Right now there are thousands of metric tons of orbital debris in the air above—and it is going to grow.  We need to address it.  Because if we don’t, this space junk could constrain new opportunities,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

“For years, it has been the recommended practice for satellite operators to deorbit their spacecraft within 25 years of completing their missions.  But 25 years is a long time.  There is no reason to wait that long anymore, especially in low-Earth orbit.  Our space economy is moving fast.  The second space age is here.  For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to respond,” she added.

FCC”s report and order applies to satellites ending their mission or passing through LEO below 2,000 km (1,243 miles). Satellite companies are given a transition period of two years.

The House Science Committee urged commissioners not to approve the measure in a bipartisan letter sent to the FCC prior to the vote. The letter said the FCC “does not have clear authority from Congress” to set the 5-year rule, and that orbital debris standards must be coordinated with other nations.

“As we stated in 2020, regulatory action by the FCC at this time, without clear authority from Congress, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the Commission’s work, and at worst undermine U.S. economic competitiveness and leadership in space,” the letter said.

“Internationally, NASA has led coordination on space debris mitigation guidelines with other space agencies over several decades. This U.S. leadership in coordinating orbital debris guidelines provides a strong foundation for leading other areas of space sustainability. Actions on orbital debris mitigation that stand apart from or conflict with Federal government guidelines could lead to confusion that, in effect, undermines, rather than strengthens, national and international efforts to reduce and mitigate the risk of orbital debris,” the letter added.