Satellites must be deorbited within five years of completing missions, FCC rules

The aim is to reduce the growing risk of orbital debris.

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Steve Dent
September 30, 2022 5:25 AM
A Kuaizhou-1A carrier rocket carrying the CentiSpace-1-S3/S4 test satellites blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, Sept. 6, 2022. The two new test satellites were launched at 10:24 a.m. Beijing Time 0224 GMT and have entered the planned orbit successfully. (Photo by Wang Jiangbo/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted new rules to address the growing risk of "space junk" or abandoned satellites, rockets and other debris. The new "5-year-rule" will require low-Earth operators to deorbit their satellites within five years following the completion of missions. That's significantly less time than the previous guideline of 25 years. 

"But 25 years is a long time," FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. "There is no reason to wait that long anymore, especially in low-earth orbit. The second space age is here. For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to respond."

Rosenworcel noted that around 10,000 satellites weighing "thousands of metric tons" have been launched since 1957, with over half of those now defunct. The new rule "will mean more accountability and less risk of collisions that increase orbital debris and the likelihood of space communication failures."

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However, some US representatives don't necessarily agree with the decision. Members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology said in a letter that such decisions are often taken by NASA. By acting unilaterally, the FCC "could create uncertainly and potentially conflicting guidance" for the space industry. They asked the FCC to explain the decision to Congress, saying "this would ensure that procedural measures such as the Congressional Review Act are not necessary."

NASA has said there are "23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth." It noted that China's 2007 anti-satellite test "added more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the debris problem."

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Satellites must be deorbited within five years of completing missions, FCC rules