The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States has adopted new rules to address the growing threat of “space junk,” or abandoned satellites, rockets, and other debris.
The new “5-year rule” will require low-Earth orbit operators to deorbit their satellites within five years of mission completion. That is significantly less time than the previous 25-year guideline.
“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.”
Some US representatives, however, disagree with the decision. In a letter, members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology stated that NASA frequently makes such decisions.
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.”