On August 25, 2020, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s new rules and further proposed regulations on orbital debris mitigation were published in the Federal Register. The changes are intended to help ensure the sustainability of space as new satellite constellations proliferate and innovative satellite technologies emerge. In the proposed rules, the FCC seeks comments on several issues that impact the space and satellite industry, including on-orbit maneuverability requirements, performance bonds for satellite disposal, and indemnification obligations. Comments are due October 9, 2020, and reply comments are due November 9, 2020.
The FCC’s recently adopted order and further proposed rules, updating orbital debris regulations from 2004, were published in the Federal Register on August 25, 2020. Among other things, the new rules require greater specificity and clarity regarding collision risks and safety measures, spacecraft tracking and data sharing, permissible orbital dwell periods, and casualty risk assessments; clarify that satellite operators should secure satellite commands against unauthorized access and use; and obligate coordination of frequencies during orbit-raising. The new rules also update some administrative processes, such as the newly implemented streamlined licensing regime for small satellites.
After significant industry input, the FCC deferred adopting many of the more contentious proposed rules and now seeks additional comments. Following are some of the key matters raised in the proceeding:
- Aggregate constellation collision risk. Current federal standards for assessing collision risk, e.g., NASA standards and Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, contemplate only the collision probability associated with a single satellite of the constellation. In light of proposed constellation deployments numbering in the thousands of satellites, the FCC is considering a new collision risk threshold based on aggregate collision probability.
- Satellite maneuverability above a certain LEO altitude. The FCC is evaluating space station maneuverability requirements to mitigate collision risk in space. Specifically, the FCC seeks input on an applicable altitude cut-off (if any) for any maneuverability requirement, whether there should be different maneuverability requirements for small and large spacecraft, and standards for maneuverability.
- Post-mission disposal timelines shorter than twenty-five years. Current federal policy requires post-mission spacecraft disposal in as short a period as practicable but no more than twenty-five years. The FCC invites comments on how it could encourage commercial operators to limit their post-mission orbital lifetimes.
- Indemnification requirements. Under international law, the United States government could potentially face liability for damage caused by private satellite operators in space. The FCC seeks comments on whether indemnification requirements are necessary and whether it has the authority to impose such requirements.
- Surety bonds for post-mission disposal. The FCC is soliciting comments on whether surety bonds tied to successful post-mission disposal are necessary to encourage proper stewardship of space resources and promote long-term space sustainability. Relatedly, the FCC seeks input on the bond amount. The FCC has proposed that GSO operators be required to post an escalating bond with a minimum of $5,000,000 USD and NGSO operators be required to post a bond with a potential maximum of $100,000,000 USD.
The comment period offers an opportunity to shape the record the FCC will consider as it prepares further rules on orbital debris mitigation matters. Companies and individuals can participate in the proceeding directly or through industry organizations. If you have questions or would like more information about the proceeding, please contact our team.
Authored by Tony Lin, George John, and Ambia Harper