House committee investigates FCC orbital debris rule

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Ahead of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote on a proposal to set a five-year deadline for satellites to leave orbit, the chairman of the House Science Committee questions the FCC’s authority to do so.

At a public meeting on September 29, the FCC commissioner will address the proposals made public earlier this month. The proposal requires LEO satellite operators to phase out their satellites as soon as possible after the end of their mission and to remove them from orbit within five years. The rule will take effect two years later and applies to both FCC-licensed satellites and satellites seeking access to the US market.

However, the bipartisan leadership of the House Science Committee was announced in September. In a Feb. 27 letter to FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC urged her to delay consideration of the proposal, citing concerns about “unilateral” actions the FCC says it is taking as a rule. I asked the FCC.

The letter was received from the Chairman of the Committee and from a representative who is an appeal body. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), and chair and lead member of the space subcommittee, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas).

One issue is whether the FCC has the authority to make such rules, something the committee also raised questions about in 2020 when the commission first considered such a rule. “As we stated in 2020, regulatory action by the FCC at this point, without clear authorization from Congress, will at the very least create confusion and undermine the work of the Commission, and at worst will undermine economic competitiveness and U.S. leadership in space,” the congressional letter argued.

“We recognize the importance of supporting a safe and sustainable space environment,” the letter reads. “However, we are concerned that the Commission’s proposal to enact rules on this issue will create uncertainty and potentially conflicting guidance.”

Committee leaders also criticized the FCC for acting alone as the National Space Council seeks to coordinate actions between agencies. The FCC’s proposal “has the potential to cause confusion in an area that has historically been tightly coordinated,” the letter says, mentioning actions such as directing NASA into an orbital debris implementation plan. of July to consider whether the existing 25-year deobbrbit guideline should be revised.

The letter suggested the committee could seek to strike down the FCC rule if the commissioners approve it. The letter asks the FCC to cooperate with the commission on this issue so that it can “avoid the need for procedural measures such as congressional review statutes.” The law allows Congress to pass “joint resolutions of disapproval” to override rules enacted by federal agencies.

Satellite operators expressed general approval for the five-year rule proposed in the FCC documents, but asked for some changes in how certain spacecraft or constellations are treated. EchoStar, Iridium, OneWeb and SES asked the FCC in a combined submission to allow exceptions to the five-year requirement for satellites with “good cause,” such as those that experienced an anomaly or other event. beyond the control of the operator. They also suggested that the FCC establish objective criteria for reviewing waiver requests.

“This small change provides greater assurance to all NGSO operators as they continue to build and operate innovative new satellite networks,” they write. HawkEye 360, Planet, and Spire Global made a similar request in a separate filing, noting that post-mission kill reliability should be assessed “based on nominal mission activities.” They also asked the FCC to remove language referring to future stricter standards planned for “large constellations”, noting that the FCC has not defined what defines a large constellation.

In its own letter to the FCC, Kepler Communications asked for a waiver of the five-year rule “for satellite failures attributable to events or issues beyond the operator’s control,” as well as a definition of “great constellation” before attempting to impose any specific rules for such systems. However, neither company formally objected to the five-year settlement or questioned the FCC’s authority to seek it. In their own filing, two orbital debris experts, Dan Oltrogge of COMSPOC and Darren McKnight of LeoLabs, applauded the FCC for proposing the restriction. They note that the existing 25-year restriction “is virtually a politically sanctioned graveyard orbit that is near and above many operating spacecraft” at altitudes ranging from 490 to 625 kilometers.

One company, Astroscale US, claimed the new rule was insufficient because it did not limit overall environmental risk. “Even with the shortened post-mission disposal period, the United States will not see the dramatic decrease in risk to desired operational satellites unless current regulations continue to underrepresent the environmental risk of failed spacecraft at within a system,” the company wrote, urging the FCC. to produce “a regular cadence of orbital debris regulatory updates”.

Summary of news:

  • House committee investigates FCC orbital debris rule
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