The Federal Communications Commission today unanimously approved new rules for preventing orbital debris and collisions in space, but only after revising the plan to address criticism that the commission was moving too fast and imposing requirements that could conflict with NASA recommendations. The Department of Commerce had urged the FCC to delay action, but the commission went ahead with a stripped-down plan.
The new rules, the first update to the FCC's orbital-debris policies in 15 years, are being imposed as plans by SpaceX and other companies to launch thousands of broadband satellites raise concerns about collisions in space. While the FCC delayed action on several parts of the order, it still imposed these new requirements:
The new rules improve the specificity and clarity of rules that require disclosure of debris mitigation plans by satellite companies. The changes include requiring that satellite applicants assign numerical values to collision risk, probability of successful post-mission disposal, and casualty risk associated with those satellites that will re-enter earth's atmosphere. Satellite applicants will also have new disclosure requirements related to protecting inhabitable spacecraft, maneuverability, use of deployment devices, release of persistent liquids, proximity operations, trackability and identification, and information sharing for situational awareness. The new rules also update the process for geostationary orbit satellite license term extension requests.
The order approved today hasn't been released yet but is apparently substantially different from a draft version that was made public a few weeks ago. Originally, today's vote was going to impose "a requirement that all satellites must be equipped with maneuverability sufficient to perform collision avoidance maneuvers during any period when the satellite is in an orbit that is above the International Space Station (approximately 400 kilometers altitude)." But instead of adopting that requirement today, the FCC moved it into a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking so the commission can seek public comment on the change before finalizing it.
"Some of my colleagues asked that we move our consideration of certain issues from the Report and Order to the Further Notice so that we could seek additional comment on them, and I was happy to accommodate that request. But let me make clear that I plan on bringing these issues to closure once we have received additional feedback," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said (DOCX) today.
Pai said the new rules "take a balanced approach: mitigating the risk posed by orbital debris, while at the same time continuing to light a regulatory path for space-based innovation." Pai added that he "look[s] forward to continuing to work with the private sector and other government agencies to implement common-sense solutions to get the job done."
Plan changed to avoid conflict with NASA
A few members of the FCC successfully urged Pai to change standards that would have conflicted with NASA recommendations. NASA also provided feedback to the commission directly. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, said:
In particular, I'm glad that we revised language regarding two aspects of the draft rules that would have significantly inhibited the growth of next-generation satellite broadband. The draft order originally adopted a standard for collision risk that departed from NASA's recommendation to assess that risk on a per-satellite basis. Similarly, the draft adopted a casualty risk standard that differed from NASA's recommendation both with respect to the chance of injury and by applying it on a per-constellation basis. While we should do our utmost to reduce the risk of collisions or injury, I also agree with NASA's expert judgment that the approach we adopt today preserves safety while we and our sister agencies study whether a different standard makes sense for these constellations.
FCC Republicans Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr had also urged Pai to make those changes. Carr said the changes "align this item more closely with the positions held by expert agencies that have experience in aerospace engineering like NASA, NOAA, and the FAA."
"With those substantial edits, I can now support the item," Carr said.
We asked NASA for a response to today's vote and will update this article if we hear back.
O'Rielly supported the FCC moving ahead with the revised plan, saying the commission's authority over satellite deployment gave it ample reason to act. After revisions, today's order strikes the "appropriate balance" between the FCC acting and deferring to other agencies that have "far more expertise in certain aspects of space travel and orbital debris than the FCC," he said.
"Ultimately, the FCC provides licenses or grants market access for these satellite services, so we play a role in the good stewardship of space, and, to that end, we must ensure that our rules are up to date," he said. "We can't sit on the sidelines, argue that we have no responsibility or authority over the issue, and pass the buck entirely to other agencies."
The FCC's changes were welcomed by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry trade group. The FCC's original plan "would have had far-reaching negative impacts, particularly on the small satellite and new space community," the group said.
"The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is pleased to see that the FCC has listened to industry concerns and decided to delay final consideration of several problematic aspects of the proposed orbital debris rules during today's FCC meeting," the organization said.
Commerce Dept. questioned FCC authority
Today's vote came less than three weeks after the US Department of Commerce asked the FCC to "defer action in this proceeding" until the Trump administration completes an ongoing review of space regulation.
"Without proper consideration, any [FCC] action may not only be duplicative but could result in the commission proposing overlapping or inconsiRead More – Source