Since the dawn of the space age 65 years ago, spent rocket stages, derelict satellites and other orbital flotsam have steadily accumulated around Earth, where they can pose grave dangers to astronauts and uncrewed spacecraft alike. Today, with thousands of satellites now in orbit and tens of thousands more slated to launch in coming years, the problem of “space junk” is so dire that it’s even become a talking point for the U.K.’s newly crowned King Charles III. Speaking at the Summit for Space Sustainability in London in June, the then prince Charles pleaded for urgent action to prevent orbital calamity. “I’ve long felt that protecting the space that immediately surrounds our planet is one of those issues few recognize as important,” he said. “But ... if we do not address it quickly, it will come back to haunt us in a big way.”
Garnering sufficient international support to tackle the matter has been difficult, however, in part because domestic regulatory bodies of spacefaring nations have been slow to react to the rapidly growing numbers of satellites in space. Yet a significant development last week may herald a turn in the tide: the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the first of several expected new rules meant to mitigate space junk. While only a small advancement for now, many experts are hopeful this could be the start of humanity finally sorting out the mess that’s been made in space. “It’s definitely a good first step,” says Therese Jones, senior director of policy at the Satellite Industry Association in Washington, D.C. “They are taking it seriously.”
On September 8 the FCC announced its new proposal to require operators to remove satellites from orbit within five years of the end of their purpose in orbit. Currently this limit is set at 25 years, but many have felt that time frame inadequately addresses the problem and needlessly increases the risk of debris-generating collisions that further exacerbate the space junk threat. This is not some remote science-fiction scenario—one major disruptive collision and many frightening near misses have already occurred. Back in 2009 a smashup between an active Iridium communications satellite and the long-dead Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite created nearly 2,000 pieces of space junk, most of which still orbits our planet today. Reducing the time dead satellites stay in orbit should lower the chances of future collisions.
“There’s been a general consensus that 25 years is too long,” says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. But “there had not been a consensus on what the new standard should be.”
Absent elusive global agreement on the issue, the FCC has now taken matters into its own hands. In its draft order, the agency’s “five-year rule” would require satellites licensed in the U.S.—or those licensed elsewhere that seek to access the U.S. market—that are orbiting up to 2,000 kilometers above Earth to be deorbited within that time frame at the end of their mission. Options for doing so include using thrusters to push themselves downwards or relying on the natural drag produced by Earth’s atmosphere in low orbits. (The FCC does not dictate how deorbit should be achieved.) “We’ve got to address this space junk,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the FCC, at a meeting of the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris, on September 9. “Twenty-five years is an awfully long time.”
Rosenworcel and the FCC’s other three commissioners are expected to approve the proposal in a vote on September 29. “I assume it will pass,” Jones says, albeit possibly with some minor changes, such as making accommodations for accidental failures of satellites in orbit that leave them stranded. If it does pass, the rule will come into effect two years hence, requiring operators to then follow the five-year rule. It’s not clear yet what the penalty would be for noncompliance. Walt Everetts, vice president of satellite operations and ground development at the U.S. satellite firm Iridium Communications, welcomes the proposal. “When I saw it, I was ecstatic,” he says. “We’ve been advocates of shortening [the orbital lifetime] for years.”
This is expected to be the first of several draft orders on space debris from the FCC, with others possibly tackling the issue of liability and financial compensation in the event of orbital collisions or requiring satellites above certain altitudes to have thrusters to avoid collisions if necessary. Such draft orders from the agency are not expected to address the issue of light pollution from satellites, which has been a particular concern for astronomers.
While these rules are largely U.S.-centric, other nations might be expected to follow suit. Indeed, some entities have proposed even more stringent regulations, such as the European Space Agency’s “net zero” debris approach to leave no junk at all in orbit. “We hope this momentum continues and [to] see other countries match these regulations,” says Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer of the Japanese space-debris-removal company Astroscale.
The FCC’s actions have been partly driven by the recent rapid rise in satellites, mostly from so-called mega constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink. That space Internet constellation began launching in 2019 and now numbers more than 3,000 satellites—half of all active satellites in orbit—and is planned to swell to more than 12,000 in the coming years. The U.K. company OneWeb has also launched more than 400 satellites, while Amazon plans to to rival Starlink by launching more than 3,000 in its Project Kuiper constellation. In the U.S., the FCC is responsible for licensing such satellites or granting them access to the country’s market, such as in the case of OneWeb. And it had received criticism in the past for approving thousands of satellites without addressing the debris risk. “Previously a satellite operator could leave a derelict, uncontrolled object for a generation,” Lindsay says, “which is a really poor way to manage the environment and kicking the can down the road.”
The five-year rule is an effort to at least partially tackle the rise in satellites, ensuring that dead satellites are not left to clutter up Earth’s orbit. But not all are convinced of its efficacy. “I have some reservations,” says Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert from the University of Southampton in England. His modeling shows that a five-year rule provides only a 3 to 4 percent improvement in the total amount of orbiting space junk versus a 25-year rule. With no “deorbit” rule in place, this modeling indicates a potential for some 133 collisions across the next two centuries. A 25-year rule reduces that to 55 collisions, but a five-year rule just lowers the number to 43 collisions. NASA’s own analysis in 2019 showed only an 11 percent improvement after 200 years. “That got dismissed in the FCC proposal,” Lewis says, noting that it would be more effective to reduce deorbit times to essentially zero. Doing so would require that satellites come straight back into the atmosphere after the end of their mission. “There’s no evidence to support the change [to five years],” Lewis says. “It’s just based on what people have been saying.”
Many satellite companies, through organizations such as the Space Safety Coalition, already have their own voluntary guidelines to remove satellites in five years or less, meaning the FCC’s rule change is unlikely to lead to much burden for most satellite operators in the U.S. On September 8 the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics released guidelines that were created in collaboration with SpaceX, OneWeb and Iridium. They go beyond the FCC’s new proposal, including setting a goal of one year to deorbit and taking measures to avoid close passes with other satellites. “Our goal was to create a set of comprehensive high-level recommendations,” says former NASA astronaut Sandy Magnus of AstroPlanetview in Virginia, who helped draft the guidelines. “We really aimed at the largest three constellation providers. Amazon would probably be the next one.”
Everyone is not convinced the FCC should be entering this domain at all. “Some people opposing this would say this is outside the authority of the FCC,” Weeden says. Others have argued the task should fall to the Department of Commerce, which has already been tasked by the White House to tackle space debris, or the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses launch operations in the U.S. The FCC, however, has taken the reins. “I think they see themselves as filling this regulatory void that existed,” Jones says. “Certainly some of the media attention and near misses have got them concerned.”
While much work still needs to be done, amid concerns of the agency overstepping and some questionable scientific evidence, the new draft order is a sign that solving space junk is at least on the agenda. Whether or not the FCC becomes the de facto U.S. entity tasked with solving the problem remains to be seen. But Weeden, for one, suspects its primacy may be inevitable. Why? Simply because, he says, “no one else is doing it.”