Space debris problem prompts bold change in US government regulations
The growing space debris problem is front and center for a new space-focused division of the US government.
“Satellite and orbital debris rules” will be one of the key responsibilities of the newly created Space Office of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The regulator announcement (opens in a new tab) the new office on Tuesday 11 April.
The FCC is trying to pivot quickly in a rapidly changing space environment; more satellite launches and a growing risk of collision are among the challenges it faces. For example, SpaceNews reports (opens in a new tab) that the regulator has a backlog of requests representing 60,000 new satellites targeting low earth orbit.
Smaller satellites and better launch access are changing the orbital landscape. One of the main drivers of this surge is SpaceX: its Starlink constellation already has more than 3,000 active satellites in orbit. Eventually, SpaceX wants to put up to 42,000 Stellar Link satellites at altitude.
Related: 6 Types Of Objects That Could Cause The Space Debris Apocalypse
More satellites, however, means more potential for trouble: Starlink has been singled out as the main driver of in-orbit collision “close calls”. Meanwhile, the global space environment is becoming increasingly polluted, including from activities like a Russian anti-satellite test in 2021, which generated a cloud of debris that is affecting Earth’s orbits. Stellar Link and the ISS as well.
The environment is changing so rapidly that the FCC has issued a call for updated space debris rules in mid-2022, just two years after the release of its final set. The existing framework was “designed for a time when going to space was extremely expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers,” FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said Aug. 5.
While Tuesday’s FCC statement contained few details about the office, new director Janet Kearney spoke about her organization’s goals at a ceremony in Washington, DC, attended by reporters.
Kearney said the FCC is “terminating comment cycles for expedited processing of applications” for satellite launches and added that the regulator is “simultaneously focusing on space orbital debris and space security,” SpaceNews reported.
Key space actions the FCC has taken in recent months, Kearney added, include shortening deadlines for removing old satellites from orbit, a proposed update to rules on connecting smartphones to satellites and a vote. on April 20 to review how satellites share spectrum.
But with increasing orbital workloads, the new organization aims to support the space side of the now defunct International Bureau. The FCC also announced a new Office of International Affairs, which will take over the International Bureau’s work with regulators around the world on space practices.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or Facebook (opens in a new tab).