Foust Forward | The role of a reluctant regulator in space sustainability

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There are close calls in space, and then there are close calls. At around 1:30 a.m. Eastern on Feb. 28, a NASA space science satellite called TIMED, operational but not maneuverable, passed near Cosmos 2221, a defunct Russian intelligence satellite. The conjunction was alarming enough to NASA that it notified media an hour before closest approach, warning that a collision “could result in significant debris generation.”

Fortunately, there was no collision. NASA didn’t disclose how close TIMED came to Cosmos 2221, but LeoLabs, a company that operates a network of space tracking radars, determined that the two spacecraft passed within 20 meters of each other. Had they collided, the collision could have produced up to 7,000 fragments large enough to track, increasing the debris population in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 50%.

Such close calls are rare: LeoLabs said it was aware of only six similar conjunctions in the last two years. One reason such events are not more frequent, even as the population of LEO grows, is the rise of regulations and best practices meant to mitigate the growth of orbital debris.

One of the first such debris mitigation regulations was enacted two decades ago by the Federal Communications Commission. Among its provisions was a requirement that a company licensed by the FCC or seeking market access in the U.S. had to deorbit its satellites no more than 25 years after its mission ended.

At a Feb. 29 event at FCC’s Washington headquarters, FCC officials and others said those regulations have been beneficial to space sustainability. “The FCC was really doing us a favor by taking some of this on,” recalled Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “The FCC was not exactly chomping at the bit to get into this.”

The FCC, if reluctant to get involved, has been successful, he concluded. “I think that’s largely worked.”

Karl Kensinger, who has worked on satellite issues at the FCC for 30 years and is currently special counsel in the FCC’s new Space Bureau, said the rules have helped spur better behavior by satellite operators globally.

That’s included improvements in LEO. “It was still relatively common 20, 25 years ago to consider deploying a satellite with no propulsion into a low Earth orbit where it would remain for 25 years or perhaps even a century,” he said. “That is today for almost anyone not considered an option.”

But what’s worked for the last 20 years may not be sufficient for the next 20. “We also need to scale up and do more,” said Charity Weeden, NASA associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy, citing the rise of megaconstellations. “We are in a very pivotal period of our development in space to make sure we do this properly.”

That includes technical solutions to mitigate and eventually remove debris, as well as regulations. The FCC adopted new rules in September 2022 that shortened the post-mission lifetime from 25 years to just five years, which Kensinger said has spurred “more significant shifts in thinking globally” on the issue.

However, it’s not clear what role the FCC will, or should, play in orbital debris regulations in the future. Gabriel Swiney of the Office of Space Commerce within NOAA, which licenses commercial remote sensing systems, noted that the office had previously deferred to the FCC or other regulators when assessing orbital debris mitigation plans of companies applying for remote sensing licenses.

The office, though, was now considering if it should have its own rules to close a loophole where a company seeks a NOAA license but goes to another country for spectrum. That office will likely play a larger role as it establishes a civil space traffic coordination system and potentially takes on a role in mission authorization. “We are looking to the future and already thinking through how we would take sustainability, debris mitigation and end-of-life into account,” he said.

That might eventually diminish the FCC’s authority and influence on debris mitigation, but its work for the last 20 years has meant far fewer late-night emails warning of a potential calamity in the skies.


This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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