On April 24, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission released its Report and Order (“R&O”) and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) on the Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age, which was approved at the FCC Open Meeting on April 23rd.  The Order adopts extensive regulatory and disclosure requirements for satellite operators, including new rules regarding safe flight, tracking and data sharing, debris creation, post-mission disposal, and collision and casualty risk assessment.

Extensive lobbying activity, significant changes to the item, and the Commissioners’ statements regarding its adoption reveal substantial concerns regarding the development of independent FCC orbital debris mitigation policy.  After circulation of the FCC’s draft decision at the beginning of April, many industry participants – from traditional commercial space and satellite operators to new space companies – asked the FCC to remove burdensome rules and proposals or defer decision-making until additional input could be received in the context of the FNPRM.  They raised concerns ranging from substantial inconsistencies between FCC regulations and existing U.S. orbital debris policy, including inappropriate imposition of single-satellite metrics on entire non-geostationary orbit (“NGSO”) constellations, to costly new indemnification and post-mission disposal performance bond proposals that would undermine U.S. commercial access to space and U.S. leadership in space technologies.  These and other controversial provisions were moved from the Order to the FNPRM.

Commissioner statements also reveal differences within the FCC regarding its approach to regulating orbital debris mitigation.  Chairman Pai confirmed he plans to bring “these issues to closure…. Because while our action today is an important step toward addressing the threat posed by orbital debris, there is still more that needs to be done to protect the space environment.”  Commissioner Rosenworcel suggested she “would have preferred… more progress on the collision risks for large constellations, accidental explosion risk, and maneuverability issues;” and that “we have to get the growing challenge of orbital debris under control…. we need to recognize the FCC has unique authority. We are the only ones with jurisdiction over commercial space activities.”

In contrast, Commissioner Carr stated that he has been “skeptical of the FCC’s jurisdiction and expertise when it comes to orbital debris” and he sought to align “this item more closely with the positions held by expert agencies that have experience in aerospace engineering like NASA, NOAA, and the FAA.”  Commissioner Starks agreed, highlighting “NASA’s expertise when it comes to setting specific standards in space policy” and a commitment to preserving safety “while we and our sister agencies study [what] standard makes sense for these constellations,” along with appreciation of “[n]ext-gen satellite broadband technology [from companies like SpaceX and Amazon]… for connecting people in the hardest-to-reach communities in rural America.”  Finally, Commissioner O’Rielly suggested that it is “not appropriate for the Commission to singlehandedly micromanage and attempt to regulate space [when] there are other agencies with far more expertise in certain aspects of space travel and orbital debris than the FCC;” the FCC must “consider the economic effects of burdensome regulation” and not “severely disadvantage small businesses, entrepreneurs, and new entrants;” and “[i]f the U.S. wants to be the leader in the current space race, our regulatory processes cannot be more expensive and burdensome than those of other nations.”

The FCC’s new orbital debris rules align with U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) and include requirements for applicants to assess and describe collision risks with both large objects (not to exceed 0.001 probability) and small objects (not to exceed 0.01 probability), the use of deployment devices, and proximity operations; and to demonstrate at least 0.9 probability of successful post-mission disposal and no more than 0.0001 probability of human casualty risk – all on a per-satellite basis.  Operators also must disclose maneuverability and orbit details, data sharing, and orbit-raising coordination plans.  Although the Order primarily addresses the increasing deployment of NGSO satellites and systems, some new requirements apply to geostationary orbit (“GSO”) satellites, including a limit of five years on license extensions.

The FNPRM requests input on:

  1. the probability of accidental explosions;
  2. appropriate metrics for total NGSO system probability of collision with large objects and casualty risk assessments;
  3. maneuverability requirements for NGSO satellites above a certain altitude;
  4. adjustments to the maximum 25-year post-mission orbital lifetime for NGSO satellites; and
  5. indemnification and post-mission disposal performance bond requirements for GSO and NGSO satellite operators.

The comment due date will be 45 days from the publication of the Order and FNPRM in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 30 days thereafter.