TR Daily FCC Launches Comprehensive Review of Orbital Debris Rules
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Thursday, November 15, 2018

FCC Launches Comprehensive Review of Orbital Debris Rules

The FCC today launched a comprehensive review of its orbital debris mitigation rules, the first such effort since it adopted the regulations in 2004. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel concurred on the item and complained, among other things, about changes to the item that were made in the past 24 hours.

The adoption of the notice of proposed rulemaking came at an open meeting that featured eight space-related items to commemorate what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called “Space Month” at the agency (see separate stories). A ninth item on the agency’s direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service rules was deleted from today’s agenda after the agency released it earlier this week (TR Daily, Nov. 13).

“With this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission is seeking to keep pace with technological and market changes, and to incorporate improvements in debris mitigation practices into the Commission’s rules. Today’s action will help to preserve the space environment for continued innovation,” the FCC said in a news release on today’s orbital debris NPRM, which was adopted in IB docket 18-313.

Since the orbital rules were adopted in 2004, “there have been significant changes in satellite technologies and market conditions, particularly in Low Earth Orbit, i.e., below 2000 kilometers altitude. These changes include the increasing use of lower-cost small satellites and proposals to deploy large constellations of non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) systems, some involving thousands of satellites,” the news release added.

“The NPRM proposes changes to improve disclosure of debris mitigation plans. The NPRM also makes proposals and seeks comment related to satellite disposal reliability and methodology, appropriate deployment altitudes in low-Earth-orbit, and on-orbit lifetime, with a particular focus on large NGSO satellite constellations. Other aspects of the NPRM include new rule proposals for geostationary orbit satellite (GSO) license term extension requests, and consideration of disclosure requirements related to several emerging technologies and new types of commercial operations, including rendezvous and proximity operations,” the news release noted.

A companion order on reconsideration denies a petition for reconsideration of the FCC’s 2004 orbital debris order submitted by the Radio Amateur Satellite Corp. (AMSAT).

In concurring on the item, Ms. Rosenworcel raised a number of concerns.

Earlier this year, she noted, “I called on the Federal Communications Commission to do more than just accelerate this problem by rubber stamping every next-generation satellite application that comes our way using yesterday’s orbital debris rules. I called for us to think about the future. I called for a comprehensive review so that we can mitigate collision risks and ensure space sustainability going forward. I called for the agency to coordinate more closely with other federal actors to come up with clear national policies for this jumble of new space activity. I thank my colleagues for heeding this call. But today’s rulemaking is — let’s be honest — only a timid start. Moreover, I am concerned it does not set this agency up for success in the future.

“It misses the forest for the trees. It asks loads of technical questions about what sorts of information about orbital debris we should expect from satellite operators, but it fails to set forth a vision for the coming commercial space age. Likewise, it proposes no principles or measurable goals for space safety,” Ms. Rosenworcel complained. “It also muddles the path forward. Compare the draft that was released three weeks ago to the rulemaking we are voting on today. Instead of moving forward aggressively — as our draft effort contemplated — we backtrack and add confusing language about whether or not this work should even continue in these halls. This is not the leadership we need as we embark on a new era in space. We need clear guidance from this agency. It should rest on three basic principles.

“First, everything that goes up in space should be trackable. We will never be able to protect against threats we cannot see. So we need to understand where all of our satellites are and where debris is with a high degree of precision. That includes working with our federal colleagues to improve methods to assess what is truly in orbit,” Ms. Rosenworcel added. “Second, everything we put up in space should be drivable. That way our satellites can avoid existing orbital debris that might come their way or de-orbit at the end of mission. … Third, what goes up must come down. Some satellite operators have proposed large constellations of thousands of satellites in low earth orbit that will be launched around the same time. According to our colleagues at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 99 percent of these satellites will need to be taken out of orbit as soon as they have completed their missions in space. Doing so will prevent collisions in the future.

“I thank my colleagues for kicking off this proceeding. Because it is not everything I hope it can be, I concur. But I hope we can move expeditiously to develop a realistic debris plan that can be implemented soon,” she added. “The new space age is not waiting — and we have work to do.”

“We contemplated a big-picture vision three weeks ago, but we had a whole host of changes made in the last 24 hours where suddenly my colleagues were concerned we had no authority to act in this area. That’s certainly news to me,” Ms. Rosenworcel added during a news conference after today’s monthly meeting. She noted that the FCC has jurisdiction over commercial spectrum, the authorization of satellites, and interference issues.

“I’m curious, who in the administration reached out to my colleagues to suggest that they needed to change the text of this item because it was changed substantially?” she asked.

When pressed about how she knew it was someone in the Trump administration, Ms. Rosenworcel said she’ wasn’t “certain about it,” but she noted that “there’s a renewed interest” in space policy in the administration, citing the renewal of the National Space Council and the proposed U.S. Space Force.

Commissioner Brendan Carr said he “was glad to see that the draft circulated by Chairman Pai three weeks ago noted the expertise that exists elsewhere across the federal government. It recognized a number of our sister agencies that have expertise and jurisdiction over the launch and tracking of satellites, including NASA, DOD, the FAA, the State Department, and the new Office of Space Commerce. Building on that discussion, I asked my colleagues to expand the questions in the Notice that go to our expertise and authority. And I want to thank them for accommodating my requests. The Notice now takes an even bigger picture view — some would say 30,000 foot view, but this is space, so that would be far too narrow. What are the right agencies and experts to [answer] these questions? Should the FCC be one of the lead agencies? Should we play a supporting and coordinating role instead? I am glad that we’re now asking these questions as well as inviting additional comment on our legal authority.”

“In space, a very small piece of orbital debris can cause catastrophic damage,” Mr. Pai said in his statement on the item. “It’s been over a decade since we last reviewed our orbital debris rules, and in that time, the number of satellites in use has increased dramatically. So it’s high time for the Commission to take up this important topic once again. Specifically, we’re proposing new rules and disclosures to mitigate the threat posed by orbital debris. Indeed, we’re exploring six ways to address this problem, including changes in satellite design, better disposal procedures, and active collision avoidance. I look forward to reviewing the feedback on these proposals and then doing our part to keep the final frontier safe for new and innovative uses.”

“Any successful orbital debris policy will consist of many parts, including modeling, measuring and observation, mitigation, remediation, and planning for orbital reentry,” said Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “Importantly, the Commission is not the lead governmental agency dealing with this issue, with both domestic and international entities containing far greater expertise and authority. Our primary role should be to ensure that current satellite providers are good stewards of their orbital and launch activities, to prevent exacerbation of the problem. This important work becomes more difficult when applicants are contemplating satellite constellations with thousands of satellites and multiple launches.

“The item before us is a reasonable effort, and I thank the staff for their work. While I find some of the reporting proposals somewhat timid and the preventative ideas may be premature or uncooked, the Notice is in sufficient shape to start the appropriate and necessary conversation on orbital debris,” Mr. O’Rielly added. “I appreciate that my colleagues agreed to add information about possible technologies being developed to retrieve orbital debris. While these may be in the early stages, to the extent the Commission is asking about retrieval mechanisms, we should make sure that we have a more complete picture of what is in the works and whether these options, and others, are viable. Proposed solutions involve such devices as harpoons, sails, nets, and others.”

Tom Sullivan, chief of the International Bureau, told reporters after today’s meeting that the FCC’s orbital debris mitigation review is separate but “complementary” to President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-3, which stressed the need for a national space traffic management policy that includes a focus on orbital debris. He said the FCC is consultant to that process. “It’s a very well-synched process,” Mr. Sullivan said. He also noted that the FCC is involved in international efforts to address orbital debris.

The Satellite Industry Association commended the FCC for addressing various space-related issues at today’s meeting.

“SIA commends the FCC for addressing so many important issues impacting the commercial space industry and for recognizing the vital role satellites play in the day to day lives of all Americans,” said SIA President Tom Stroup. “The satellite industry really is entering A New Space Age, thanks to recent advances in a number of satellite technologies. SIA appreciates the FCC’s recognition of the importance of these advances and looks forward to working with the Commission to create a regulatory environment that will help nurture and support the satellite industry while ensuring America’s long-term future leadership in space.”

Joan Marsh, AT&T, Inc.’s executive vice president-regulatory & state external affairs, said, “This week, the FCC adopted proposals that modify its rules to streamline satellite licensing procedures, provide access for new satellite services, and minimize orbital debris while also recognizing the importance of protecting existing services. The Commission’s actions strike the right balance between empowering the next generation of satellite services, providing for the safety of people and properties in space, and ensuring that millions of consumers can continue to rely on existing satellite services. We look forward to working with the Commission as these proposals are further developed and implemented.”- Paul Kirby, [email protected]

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