There is also an international element to the debate, as the FCC rule could apply to some satellite operators beyond the United States. “The FCC is trying to design this in a way that it’s not just applicable to US license applicants, but anyone who wants to enter the US market. They’re trying to flex their muscles in a way that creates a rule that applies to other space operators,” says Bruce McClintock, head of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. And others pay heed to US guidelines: example, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space adopted the 25-year rule in 2010, and it has become the international standard. But the lack of coordination within the U.S. government right now on the proposed five-year rule could limit its potential effectiveness, McClintock said.
as ubiquitous plastic waste in the oceans, in-orbit junk has been piling up for decades, and tens of thousands of traceable pieces of debris now pass through low Earth orbit at an altitude of 1,200 miles or less, along with millions of pieces too small to track but not too small to be damaged a satellite. This means massive networks like OneWeb or SpaceX Stellar Link could be hit by debris, even as companies scramble to quickly deorbit their own satellites.
Leaving trash in space for less time means moving it lower, so it burns up sooner. McKnight argues that satisfying the five-year rule is worthwhile, and that a one-year rule would be better because it would mean pushing defunct satellites below 250 miles, which would limit the risks to the International Space Station, the Chinese Tiangong. space station and other crucial spacecraft. And he thinks advances in technology, like the shift from chemical to electric propulsion, will make it possible to move a satellite even if only 1% of the launch payload’s mass is fuel.
Other innovations could also be helpful, says Marlon Sorge, an aerospace technical researcher at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center in El Segundo, Calif. “Adding propulsion for small satellites is quite difficult, but there are other options, like drag enhancement devices. These are things that deploy a long tether or a sail that increases its surface area,” he said.
It is important to note that the FCC rule will also apply to upper stage rocket body. Many old ones in orbit were abandoned decades ago by the United States, China and Russia. But because the rockets may be too big to burn up when they re-enter, they must be brought back to Earth in a controlled way, in an unpopulated area of the ocean.
McClintock points out that the biggest problem isn’t the time owners have to deorbit their spacecraft — it’s that there’s no enforcement mechanism to ensure they follow through with their plans. “An argument against a five-year rule, people will say, is that it’s more of a concern that people aren’t complying with the 25-year rule yet,” he says. “If we followed the 25-year rule more, we wouldn’t need a five-year rule.”
Yet when it comes to these controversial licensing requirements, prevention is better than cure, says McKnight: “The space environment is not as forgiving as the air, sea and land environments. You have no aviation accidents affecting the next flight. In space, when the accident occurs, it lasts for decades or centuries.
Update 10-5-2022 6:30 PM: This story has been updated to clarify Darren McKnight’s comment about a one-year rule.