On April 2, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (“Commission”) circulated a draft of its Orbital Debris Mitigation Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Draft Order”) for consideration at the Commission’s April open meeting.  The Draft Order seeks to overhaul the Commission’s orbital debris mitigation rules, first adopted in 2004, to address the increasing deployment of lower-cost small satellites and large constellations of non-geostationary satellite orbit (“NGSO”) systems.

The Draft Order addresses various issues, including collision and casualty risks, and tracking and identification of spacecraft.  It also creates post-mission disposal requirements and addresses potential liability issues resulting from commercial operations.  These issues are briefly discussed below.

Existing application disclosure requirements are revised under the Draft Order to implement numeric thresholds designed to ensure that operators appropriately mitigate risk of collisions.  The Commission provides a threshold for successful post-mission disposal of spacecraft to limit long-term impacts to the orbital environment.  A presumptive casualty risk assessment threshold also limits the risk to human life caused by re-entry.

Disclosure Threshold[1]
Probability of collision with large objects during spacecraft orbital lifetime Less than 0.1%
Probability of collision with small objects that would disable the satellite and prevent compliance with post-mission disposal Less than 1%
Probability of successful post-mission disposal for NGSO space stations No less than 90% for individual space stations;

Greater than 90% for space station systems

Casualty risk associated with satellites that re-enter Earth’s atmosphere Presumptive casualty risk of 0, but may be approved up to a limit of 0.01%


Additionally, the Draft Order would adopt disclosure requirements for maneuverability, trackability, and identification of spacecraft.  Licensees will be required to disclose the extent of maneuverability of their planned space stations, including the number of collision avoidance maneuvers the satellite is expected to make, and any other means the satellite can use to avoid collisions.  The Commission will also require all NGSO satellites or systems deployed above 400 km—roughly the altitude of the ISS—to have sufficient communication and maneuvering capabilities for collision avoidance above that altitude.

New trackability and identification requirements would also allow the Commission and other interested parties to improve space situational awareness, and operators to make informed decisions regarding space traffic management.  The proposed rule provides that objects greater than 10 cm3 are presumed to be trackable in LEO; objects smaller than this will be required to provide additional demonstration of reliable trackability.  Applicants will also be required to disclose whether space station tracking will be active or passive, and to certify that the space station will have a unique telemetry marker.  The rule requires applicants to disclose how the operator will identify the space station following deployment.  Ultimately, the requested information should help the Commission understand and thus mitigate the orbital debris risks posed by a satellite.

Post-mission disposal plays an integral role in the Commission’s efforts to mitigate orbital debris risks.  The Commission already developed rules for geostationary satellite orbit (“GSO”) disposal, and the Draft Order would create rules for NGSO space stations, including setting a threshold for the reliability of spacecraft disposal.  The Commission declined to set an upper limit for post-mission orbital lifetime of NGSO spacecraft, noting that the requirement for maneuverability above 400 km means that, practically speaking, NGSO spacecraft will not remain above 400 km long after the spacecraft’s mission is complete, and satellites under 400 km will typically re-enter the atmosphere within several months.

The Draft Order also addresses liability issues and economic incentives associated with orbital debris, including indemnification and insurance.  The new rules would include a license condition requiring satellite operators to indemnify the United States against costs associated with a claim brought under international law related to the authorized facilities.  In doing so, the Commission seeks to limit the United States’ exposure as the “launching state” under the Outer Space Treaty and the Liability Convention.  Moreover, while the Commission notes that market access grantees will generally not be subject to an indemnification agreement, the Commission leaves the door open for applying such a condition to market access applicants on a “case-by-case” basis.  The Commission declined to require satellite operators to also obtain insurance associated with the indemnification requirement, finding that insurance would have limited effect as an incentive for promoting good behaviors in space.

Finally, as part of its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission inquires whether it should create a performance bond tied to successful post-mission disposal.  The Commission’s proposed rule would set differing definitions for “successful disposal” based on whether the satellite is NGSO versus GSO, as well as different methods of calculating the bond requirement.

We await filings from interested parties following the release of the draft order and prior to the Commission’s April 23, 2020 open meeting discussion.

[1] Threshold values are subject to additional requirements as discussed in the Draft Order.