Plans for Cleaning Up Space Debris: New Rules Put Pressure on the Industry

March 22, 2023

New rules of practice are being posed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding the time frame in which unused spacecraft can remain in orbit. While satellite operators were once allowed up to 25 years to remove their defunct satellites from space when reaching their end-of-life status, the FCC is now greatly reducing this lengthy grace period. This is due to the surprising number of active satellites, as well as inactive crafts and random debris, that orbit our skies currently and pose a threat to everyday operations.

Overcrowding Low Earth Orbit in Space

As of 2023, there are an estimated 4,800 satellites in orbit and over 11,500 payloads within the low Earth orbit (LEO), which comprises altitudes under 2,000 km (1250 miles) from our planet. These orbiting spacecrafts include internet provider satellites, public and private research satellites, weather satellites, communication satellites, and more. Of these necessary artifacts, an estimated 2,800 pieces of debris are found to be congesting this vital area.

The problem with an overcrowded LEO is that there is simply not enough space to accommodate this excessive number of spacecrafts. In addition, the orbiting crafts need to be properly managed and maintained, so that their trajectory does not impact other artifacts in the LEO. Orchestrating the flight paths of thousands of satellites is a monumental task. And one wrong move has, time and again, negatively impacted many expensive space operations and created even more space debris due to collisions and improperly decommissioned satellites.

For example, an anti-satellite test performed by Russia in 2021 created 1,800 pieces of debris and tracking data suggests that one-third of the debris still remains to date. Anti-satellite tests, while necessary, can have a long-lasting impact, which is why safe over speedy decommissioning processes may be worthy of more consideration.

A Step in a New Direction

Under the new FCC ruling, operators would be encouraged to de-orbit their spacecrafts “as soon as practicable” with a maximum allowance of 5 years. Previously, the 25-year limit accommodated for the actual amount of time it took operators to de-orbit a satellite. NASA Ambassador Tony Rice explains that “debris from 1993’s launches required nearly 20 years on average to de-orbit. This was reduced to 6.3 years by 2000 and 3.9 by 2010”. Based on this data, the FCC suggests that a de-orbit taking longer than 5 years is now an impractical and unnecessary frame of time.

According to the US House Science Committee, “the seriousness of the orbital debris [is a real] threat to future space sustainability," but they also posed an issue with the FCC’s involvement in such a decision, stating that “we are concerned that the Commission’s proposal to promulgate rules on this matter could create uncertainty and potentially conflicting guidance.” 

In 2022, new legislation was introduced to help reduce orbital debris, with the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, calling on NASA to help establish a plan of action for active debris removal. NASA is well-aware of this issue and the need for action, stating that “much more debris—too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions—exists in the near-Earth space environment. Since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems.” 

NASA adds that the Department of Defense (DoD) manages a tracking system of near-earth objects (NEOs) and those in our LEO in order to access risk and help prevent major debris collisions. A call for further action, however, is being voiced by many agencies to create a safer space within this orbital system and the FCC is taking steps in this new direction to help manage our space frontier.

Impacts on Astronautical Engineering Professionals

With these new space industry regulations come a significant impact on astronautical professionals. The demand for speedy processes in de-orbiting satellites, managing the risks and maintenance, developing project updates, and generating the required documentation all require a talented workforce to manage each area of expertise. At Capitol Technology University, our program offerings include aviation and astronautical engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, and data science, engineering, management of technology, and many others—all to better serve our evolving workforce in this industry field. 

In addition, students benefit from internship, mentorship, and networking opportunities with leaders of the industry through our unique partnerships and project collaborations with NASA, the U.S. Space Command, the Royal Aeronautical Society, and more. Our on-site and remote access ALPHA observatory routinely detects, tracks, and reports NEO findings to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) and our Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC) offers hands-on training in creating payloads, mini-satellites, and high-altitude balloons (HAB) in NASA-collaborative projects. Find out more by visiting our website or contact an admissions counselor to learn how Capitol Tech can help you reach new heights in your career.