Enlarge /. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 60 Starlink satellites launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on January 29, 2020.
The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted new rules to prevent debris and collisions in space, but only after revising its anti-criticism plan that the Commission was moving too quickly and imposing requirements that might conflict with NASA's recommendations . The Department of Commerce had asked the FCC to postpone the measures, but the Commission presented a stripped-down plan.
The new rules, the first FCC orbital waste policy update in 15 years, are being introduced as SpaceX and other companies plan to launch thousands of broadband satellites that raise concerns about space collisions. While the FCC delayed action in several parts of the contract, it still made the following new demands:
The new rules improve the specificity and clarity of the rules that require the disclosure of plans to reduce debris by satellite companies. The changes include that satellite applicants must assign numerical values to the risk of collision, the likelihood of successful disposal after use, and the risk of accidents for satellites re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Satellite applicants will also have new disclosure requirements related to the protection of habitable spacecraft, maneuverability, use of deployment equipment, the release of persistent fluids, proximity operations, traceability and identification, and information sharing for situational awareness. The new rules also update the process for geostationary orbit satellite license renewal requests.
The order approved today has not yet been released, but appears to be significantly different from a draft that was released a few weeks ago. Originally, today's vote was supposed to "impose a requirement that all satellites be equipped with maneuverability sufficient to perform collision avoidance maneuvers in any period in which the satellite is in orbit above the International Space Station (approximately 400 km altitude). " Instead of adopting this requirement today, the FCC has included it in another notice of the proposed rules so that the Commission can obtain a public opinion on the change before it is finalized.
"Some of my colleagues have asked that we move our review of certain topics from the report and order to the rest of the release so that we can get additional comments about them, and I was happy to respond to this request. But let me clarify that I am planning FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today (DOCX) that we should resolve these issues as soon as we receive additional feedback.
Pai said that the new rules "take a balanced approach: reduce the risk of debris in orbit while still showing a regulatory path for space-based innovations." Pai added that he "looks forward to continuing to work with the private sector and other government agencies to implement sensible solutions to get the job done."
Changed plan to avoid conflicts with NASA
Some FCC members successfully urged Pai to change standards that would have run counter to NASA's recommendations. NASA also gave the Commission direct feedback. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a democrat, said:
I am particularly pleased that we have revised the language on two aspects of the draft regulation that would have significantly inhibited the growth of next generation satellite broadband. The draft regulation originally adopted a collision risk standard that deviated from NASA's recommendation to assess this risk per satellite. Similarly, an accident risk standard was adopted in the draft that differed from NASA's recommendation in terms of both the risk of injury and the use per constellation. Although we should do our utmost to reduce the risk of collisions or injuries, I also agree with NASA's expert opinion that the approach we are taking today maintains safety while we and our sister agencies are examining whether another standard makes sense for these constellations.
FCC Republicans Michael O & # 39; Rielly and Brendan Carr had also asked Pai to make these changes. Carr said the changes "would bring this point closer to the positions of expert agencies that have experience in aerospace engineering, such as NASA, NOAA, and FAA."
"With these major changes, I can now support the article," said Carr.
We asked NASA for an answer to today's vote and will update this article if we hear anything.
O & # 39; Rielly supported the FCC in implementing the revised plan and said the Commission's authority over the use of the satellite had given it sufficient reason to act. After revisions, today's arrangement strikes a "reasonable balance" between the FCC's actions and deferment against other agencies that "have far more expertise in certain aspects of space and orbit and debris than the FCC," he said.
"Ultimately, the FCC licenses or grants market access for these satellite services. So we have a role in managing space well, and to do that we need to make sure our rules are up to date," he said. "We cannot sit on the sidelines, argue that we have no responsibility or authority in this matter, and fully pass the money on to other agencies."
The FCC's changes were welcomed by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry trading group. The FCC's original plan "would have had far-reaching negative effects, particularly on the small satellite and the new space community," the group said.
"The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is pleased to see that the FCC listened to industry concerns and decided to postpone the final review of several problematic aspects of the proposed orbital debris rules during today's FCC meeting," the organization said.
Trade department interviewed FCC authority
Today's vote took place less than three weeks after the U.S. Department of Commerce asked the FCC to "postpone measures in this process" until the Trump administration has completed an ongoing space regulation review.
"Without proper consideration, each (FCC) measure can not only be done twice, but can also result in the Commission proposing overlapping or inconsistent rules with those of other federal agencies, creating confusion, increasing costs, and completely contradicting the space. " The President's trade policy, "said the FCC's Trade Department.
The commercial department suggested that the FCC may not be the appropriate authority to monitor orbital waste requirements. The department asked the FCC to participate in an Interagency Working Group to "identify the appropriate authority for managing orbital debris regulations, develop regulatory parameters for such regulations, and determine the management's approach to the "Insurance agents are still gathering" industry insights on how best to promote and, if necessary, regulate commercial space activities to create responsible investments and operations, "the file said Department.
We contacted the Department of Commerce about today's FCC vote and will update this story if we get a response.
The defense department participates
Defense officials have also reportedly been concerned about the FCC plan. While the DOD has not submitted a filing in the FCC process, the Breaking Defense news site reported Tuesday that the "DoD fears that the FCC is undercutting some current best practices," sources say, particularly as to how commercial and civilian operators report their activities to DOD and the commercial department to ensure that their spacecraft can be tracked. "
A government source said the FCC appeared to have largely (if not entirely) written these proposed rules in a vacuum, and may not have ensured that White House instructions in Space Guidelines 1 through 4, as well as other perspectives and stocks, were fully taken into account broader cooperation, "the Breaking Defense report said. These guidelines, available on this government website, include the goal of" streamlining the rules for commercial use of space "and implementing a" national policy for space management. " The objections raised in the Breaking Defense report were raised prior to the FCC announcing the changes.
Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC democrat, said the FCC must act because of "the problems posed by large constellations" that are "already being designed, built, and launched."
"We have to recognize that the FCC has unique authority," said Rosenworcel. "We are the only ones responsible for commercial space activities."