There is currently thousands dead satellites, defunct rocket stages, and various other pieces of “space junk” whizzing over our heads at any moment. Much more is expected to emerge in the coming years, with both governments and corporations engaged their businesses far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, low Earth orbit is already quite crowded, and long-term efforts are needed to ensure the safety of its future visitors, satellites, not to mention us still on earth.
Earlier this month, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made its first attempt to address the issue, presenting a new proposition to drastically reduce the window, operators must remove decommissioned satellites from orbit. In the current state, dead satellites can remain in Earth’s orbit for up to 25 years, which many experts claim that’s too generous a term given the fast-growing industry. Under new FCC rules, that time will be reduced to just five years, but observers say much more needs to be done to truly address the growing problem.
[Related: The destruction of Russia’s Kosmos-1408, explained.]
“In general, I think that this is a good step,” he explains PJ Blountlecturer in law at Cardiff University and executive secretary of the International Institute of Space Law, wrote PopSci by e-mail. “As large satellite arrays become the norm in low-Earth orbit architectures, end-of-life satellites that remain in orbit pose a collision hazard to active satellites and take up valuable orbital space.”
Unfortunately, we have already seen these risks become a reality. Just last year, there was an incident with Russia destroying one of its satellites through a rocket launch produced more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris while the collision between an active communications vehicle and the dead Russian satellite Kosmos-2251 more than 2,000 pieces of debris were formed in 2009.
However, some critics argue that the FCC’s proposal already falls short of what needs to be done. Talking to Scientific American Earlier this month, Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton, showed that their models, which use a five-year decommissioning window, reduced potential collisions by just three to four percent. “Criticism that this rule does not significantly reduce space debris ignores that it helps reduce the risk of debris generation by reducing the number of inactive satellites in orbit,” Blount writes. “The constant mantra in the space world is that space is congested, and requiring operators to release expiring satellites is a logical way to reduce that congestion.”
[Related: A solar storm blasted 40 SpaceX satellites out of orbit.]
Additionally, Blount explains that since the US is widely considered a world leader in space law and regulation, the FCC’s guidelines could also serve as a starting point for other countries. That is, unless legal opponents forever justify the new proposal even before it is launched. “Some people who oppose it will say it’s outside the FCC’s authority,” explained Brian Weeden of the Safer World Foundation. Scientific Americanreferring to other authorities, such as the Federal Aviation Administration or even the Department of Commerce, that are more appropriate for the enterprise.
At the same time, it’s clear that the FCC sees the current lack of regulation as an opportunity to pave the way forward, Blount says. “The FCC uses its radio spectrum licensing authority to impose these requirements on operators, the logic being that litter reduces the efficient use of spectrum,” he says. The proposal is expected to be approved by commissioners during a vote scheduled for Sept. 29, at which point the law would take effect in two years.
“It’s often assumed that the US will hurt itself with regulations that other states don’t have… but space debris is a problem that all space operators face and that most space nations are trying to address in some way,” Blunt said. “…[M]maintaining an open dialogue between these countries to find rules that best contribute to the sustainable development of the space environment.”