FCC rules satellites must deorbit within 5 years of ending mission

Satellites in low Earth orbit can’t linger too long after they’ve finished what they went there to do, according to new rules passed by the FCC today. Now there’s a five-year limit on loitering in orbit, which should help keep the space debris problem more manageable in years to come.

The FCC, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, is the de facto regulator for commercial satellite operations, and although they have updated many of their rules in recent years, the old 25-year limit for post-mission deorbiting came from a different era. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out that many pieces of space junk, indeed entire craft and launch components, from as far back as the ’50s are still in orbit.

The Commission argued that it’s in everybody’s favor if we address the potential for clogging up orbit before it becomes a crisis.

“If thousands of new satellites launch every year and are replenished every 5, 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 5 years, a timeframe we know is readily achievable.”

Commissioner Nathan Simington wrote that he very much hopes the 5-year rule will end up “a largely unused backstop for best-in-class commercial practice,” but that it would be foolish to let that stand in the way of making the rule in the first place.

There was some criticism when this rule began to be contemplated that it would just add more requirements and red tape to getting into orbit, and that some of the terminology and concepts in the order are evolving. For instance, what is a “large” constellation versus a “small” one? A few years ago even a dozen satellites would seem to be a “large” collection, but these days that many are launched before tea.

These objections are not without merit. But for one thing, getting your satellite to deorbit within five years of its mission end date really isn’t that hard, compared with all the other parts about getting to and operating in space. And for another, if it’s really impossible, take the fine and apologize, and do better next time. Everyone acknowledges the whole show up there is a work in progress.

The FCC only has so much power, however, and it likely will take legislation and cooperation internationally to make even something as simple as the five-year deorbit rule anything like universal.