US seeks to tidy up space debris

With the Earth’s orbit growing more crowded with satellites, a US government agency is to begin revising decades-old rules on getting rid of space debris.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will also begin work on other issues such as satellite refuelling and inspecting and repairing in-orbit spacecraft.

“We believe the new space age needs new rules,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said, adding that current rules “were largely built for another era”.

She said the FCC needs “to make sure our rules are prepared for the proliferation of satellites in orbit and new activities in our higher altitudes.”

The FCC also plans to look at “new ways to clean up orbital debris. After all, there are thousands of metric tons of junk in space,” Rosenworcel added. The FCC will look at “the potential for orbital debris remediation and removal functions that offer the prospect of improvement in the orbital debris environment.”

The FCC is asking questions about in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM), which includes issues such as “repairing and refuelling satellites and even assembling whole new systems in orbit,” Rosenworcel said.

“The FCC remains the only agency to license virtually every commercial space mission that touches the United States,” FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks said. 

“With that power comes the responsibility to understand the missions we authorise, and to create an enabling regulatory environment that opens new doors while still protecting against new risks.”

The FCC said ISAM has “the potential to build entire industries, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, and advance America’s economic, scientific, technological, and national security interests.”

The FCC is already moving to update its satellite rules and previously adopted new rules to help satellite launch companies get access to spectrum for transmissions “from space launch vehicles during pre-launch testing and space launch operations.”