FCC proposes ‘five-year rule’ for dead satellite disposal

The agency will vote on the regulation later this month.

EvgeniyShkolenko via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission wants to do something about space junk in low Earth orbit. On Thursday, the agency published a proposal (via Ars Technica) that, if adopted, would put a deadline on how long non-geostationary satellites can stay in space.

As things stand, voluntary NASA guidelines published in the 1990s recommend that dead satellites should be deorbited within 25 years. The FCC wants to adopt a five-year rule that would require domestic satellite operators and companies that want access to the US market to dispose of their non-functioning satellites as soon as they can. “We believe it is no longer sustainable to leave satellites in LEO [low Earth orbit] to deorbit over decades,” the FCC states in its proposal.

Satellites already in space would be exempt from the FCC’s guidelines. The Commission is also proposing there be a two-year grandfathering period that start on September 29th, the day it plans to vote on the regulation. That carveout would give organizations that previously obtained approval for a future satellite launch time to develop a disposal plan for their spacecraft. The FCC said it would also grant waivers case-by-case after NASA expressed concern that the five-year limit would impact its CubeSat missions.

The proposal comes as the number of satellites in low Earth orbit is expected to increase over the next few years dramatically. With contributions from companies like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb, as many as 18,000 new satellites could be floating above the planet by 2025. Those satellites will not only make it more challenging to observe the night sky, but the probability of a potential crash will increase too.