FCC: satellites in low-Earth orbit must fall within 5 years of mission completion to clean up space

The FCC seeks to clean up the low-Earth orbit (LEO) region of space below the 1,200 mile (2,000 km) altitude with the adoption of new rules changing the post mission complete LEO satellite deorbit due date from 25 years to down to 5.

The FCC takes seriously the short- and long-term challenges of orbital debris. Defunct satellites, discarded rocket cores, and other debris now fill the space environment, creating challenges for current and future missions. There are more than 4,800 satellites operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and the vast majority of those are commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The new 5-year rule for deorbiting satellites will mean more accountability and less risk of costly collisions that increase debris. The Report and Order adopted today requires satellites ending their mission in or passing through the low-Earth orbit region (below 2,000 kilometers altitude) to deorbit as soon as practicable but no later than five years after mission completion. This is the first concrete rule on this topic, replacing a long-standing guideline. These new rules will also afford satellite companies a transition period of two years. The mission length and deorbit timeline for any given satellite are established through its application process with the FCC's International Bureau.

Report and Order | FCC
Photo: Steve Worsethandetroit (CC BY-SA 2.0)

FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington describes the small window of time available where LEO space junk can still be managed before the explosion of space activities lying in wait just over the horizon, along with the overall mechanism the FCC will use to leverage international multistakeholder compliance:

Let me be clear. Orbital debris is a problem, but not a crisis. Not yet. Operators might be forgiven for wondering where the fire is. Indeed, we may, in the fullness of time, come to discover that active debris removal technologies are more than adequate to meet the challenge of debris generation. Or that close coordination among operators in the sharing of ephemeris data and mutual cooperation in conjunction management works just fine without our intervention. We may come to learn that, in other words, the Commission's rules are a largely unused backstop for best-in-class commercial practice. Our rules may soon be superannuated by innovative solutions from responsible operators who recognize that for any operator to succeed, each must operate with an eye toward safety and sustainability. That could happen.

In fact, I hope it does happen. But what we cannot do is bet on it. Hope is not a plan. And the operating environment of the past of a few, large, high-altitude satellites is fading from memory at a rate that feels like a step change from even five years ago. At the FCC we often talk of the spectrum pipeline—well, get a load of the satellite pipeline. Over the next decade, commercial operators plan to launch tens of thousands of new satellites into orbit. A veritable Cambrian explosion of commercial space operations is just over the horizon. We had better be ready when it arrives.


We must seize this moment; the moment practically calls out for it. The United States represents something like fifty percent of the international space economy—we therefore have, through the option of extending our orbital debris rules to any who seek market access, a regulatory hook for creating a default rulebook for commercial operators globally. We can create a unitary set of clear and flexible rules for safe commercial space operation, and we can apply that standard to any who seek access to our market. And, as things stand, that is a powerful—even irresistible—incentive.

This is a lane for American leadership in what is arguably the most innovative commercial industry, but it can close if we do nothing. Our present leadership in the space economy is not promised forever. And strong rules can be winnowed through consensus-driven multistakeholder bodies constrained by heckler's vetoes. It is entirely possible to miss this opportunity.

Statement of Commissioner Nathan Simington | FCC