Insight - New Delays on New Debris Rules at the FCC

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

By Director of Private Sector Programs Ian Christensen and Project Manager Josh Wolny

During the week of April 20, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a series of decisions that may impact space sustainability. First, they approved a controversial spectrum license for a 5G communications system to be operated by Ligado that may pose significant risk of interference with critical GPS systems and applications. Secondly, they proposed an increase to license fees that may have an adverse financial effect on emerging beneficial small satellite applications and concepts. Third – and most significantly – the FCC extended the deliberation period on many of its proposed improvements to space debris mitigation requirements in future licenses. 

The extension of consideration on these rules fits into a long history and larger context about the U.S. government’s approach to orbital debris. We recently expressed our support for the proposed update to the FCC’s debris mitigation guidelines because other parts of the U.S. government have not made meaningful progress in improving space debris mitigation practices. In this article, we seek to cover the FCC’s space debris mitigation efforts and contextualize the proposed updates and controversies.

Since 2004, the FCC has required that license applicants submit a description of the design and operational strategies that will be used to mitigate orbital debris, including: 

  • A statement covering debris released during normal operations and the probability of the applicant’s satellite becoming debris after collision with small objects (<10 cm).
  • A statement assessing and limiting the probability of the accidental explosion of the applicant’s satellite related to onboard energy sources such as fuel and batteries.
  • A statement assessing and limiting the probability that the applicant’s satellite will become a source of debris by collision with large objects (>10 cm) or another satellite, and how the applicant will coordinate with other operators.
  • A statement detailing post-mission disposal plans and a casualty risk assessment in the event of the applicant’s satellite re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

In November 2018, the FCC started the process to update its space debris mitigation requirements with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking to update the application disclosure requirements related to orbital debris. The NPRM sought public comment on more granular requirements applied to the 2004 statements, and new requirements related to quantifying collision risk, maneuverability, post-mission lifetime, proximity operations, liability, and economic incentives, among others. SWF engaged in the public comment period, along with over 60 other companies, individuals, and other government entities, highlighting our general support for the recognition that near Earth space has changed dramatically since 2004, and more specific comments.

Between the closure of the reply comment period in May 2019 and April 2, 2020, little seemed to be taking place with the NPRM. During the first round of comments, many expressed confusion as to why the FCC was attempting to lead on orbital debris issues when Space Policy Directive Three had assigned that role to the Office of Space Commerce. Meanwhile, an interagency group updated the Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP), a document that guides U.S. government satellite operators and influences licensing requirements in other agencies. Then, on April 2, 2020 the FCC released a draft Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, kicking off another series of comments and ex parte filings from industry and others. In response to many of those comments, the Commissioners voted on and passed a modified document that moves many of the controversial requirements to the further notice of proposed rulemaking (FNPRM).

Originally, the April 2nd draft sought further comment on one aspect of this proceeding, a performance bond for successful post-mission disposal. The final version of the FNPRM also seeks comment on:

  • Probability of accidental explosions
  • Total probability of collisions with large objects
  • Maneuverability above a certain altitude in LEO
  • Post-mission orbital lifetime
  • Casualty risk assessment
  • Indemnification of the U.S. government against liability

SWF has written extensively on the positive and negative actions of the U.S. government’s response to the challenges of orbital debris. Space Policy Directives Two and Three, if fully implemented, would have positive effects on reducing the risk of orbital debris. SPD-2 would give the Office of Space Commerce the personnel and authority to become the leading executive branch entity on commercial space regulation. SPD-3 empowered the Office of Space Commerce to further study and seek to mitigate orbital debris and directed the revisit of the government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practice. In parallel, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology drafted the American SAFE Space Management Act, which has not been acted on since December 2018. As a result of these policy decisions, some have called for the FCC to delay further work on orbital debris mitigation to allow for Executive Branch and Congressional action. Ideally, a coordinated whole-of-government approach would be best. However, this is not likely to occur in a meaningful timeframe. The update to ODMSP fails to address key challenges. The House and Senate have not been able to agree on authorizing any other executive branch entities with oversight of orbital debris. Congress has not appropriated the required funds to increase the effectiveness of the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce. Given an election year and other priorities, this is unlikely to change.

While these relatively normal distractions to the policy process have played out, the catalog of space objects continues to grow. Since the release of SPD-3 in June 2018, the USAF’s public satellite catalog has logged an increase in tracked objects from 19,378 to 20,427 a net gain of 1,049. Commercial SSA operators have noted an increasing number of close approaches between spacecraft. The time to act is now: before the status quo becomes unsustainable. Developers, operators, and regulators of space activities must realize both the challenges and opportunities that commercial space presents to maintaining a safe and sustainable operational environment in space, and to continuing the benefits of space applications here on Earth.

The FCC’s decision to re-open many of the more controversial proposed changes to further comment - while a short-term setback to improvements in debris mitigation practices - does create opportunity to move forward eventually. The opportunity exists for all stakeholders to use this second comment period to actively and positively engage in work towards implementation of solutions, rather than further delay it. Operators who expressed concerns over the proposed rules might use this comment period to better understand the details of the proposed requirements and offer alternatives if those requirements pose significant business or technical challenges. The FCC itself might take technical information submitted during the comment period and use it to supplement its own analysis. Congress might determine an approach to solving legislative differences on commercial space oversight. The executive branch might articulate a process for reconciling different agency roles in debris mitigation requirements and approaches.

It is unlikely that all of the above will occur. Yet it remains clear to SWF that debate over institutional and organizational roles within the structure of the U.S. government should not impede or prevent the development and implementation of rules and procedures that are necessary now to address the pressing sustainability challenges of the space domain. If - as an independent agency - the FCC is able to implement policies that make a positive step forward, then the jurisdictional debate can be resolved in the future. In other words, concern over integration with other U.S regulatory and space traffic management reform efforts need not prevent progress on debris mitigation. Likewise, imperfect knowledge of the state of the domain should not impede near-term steps towards improved mitigation practices. There is a need to develop a broad whole-of-government approach to space environmental management - and as a primary licensing agency for satellite activity, the FCC will continue to play a role in the future. Progress on interim steps should not cease in the absence of that approach. 

The renewed commenting period should be viewed as a final opportunity to improve the FCC’s proposed approach - not as an opportunity for further inaction. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argues that this offers a chance to address a number of issues that prior U.S. government (including the FCC) efforts to update debris mitigation practices have passed on. These include the guideline that satellites be disposed of within 25 years of their end of life, a rule which as Rosenworcel notes “simply does not make sense in today’s orbital environment.” Satellite industry groups - such as the Space Safety Coalition (of which SWF is a participant) - have called for more specific deorbit timelines suited to particular mission types, among other improvements to space debris mitigation practices. The new comment period offers the chance to further align industry recommendation, which would go beyond the ODMSP update, with the FCC’s requirements. This would be a positive step forward. As SpaceX points out in earlier rounds of comments to the FCC: "Operators of satellite systems have a responsibility to protect the orbital environment, even when this responsibility adds cost to operations." The opportunity exists now to deliver on that responsibility. 

Last updated on May 5, 2020