In September, the Federal Communications Commission passed a new regulation mandating that all decommissioned Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites must be deorbited within five years. Previous to this new regulation, deorbiting inactive satellites might take up to 25 years. Due to the upcoming deployment of multiple satellite networks, which might exponentially increase the risk of collisions if future units are not withdrawn from their orbits, the space industry expected a tighter adjustment on deorbiting.
According to the Space Surveillance Network, nearly 34,000 manufactured objects larger than a tennis ball are orbiting the Earth as of today. The majority of them are confined to a restricted band of elevations and positions. Around 11,000 of these are “uncontrolled.” Given this information, collisions between LEO satellites are no longer the stuff of science fiction. The first satellite collision occurred in 2009, when an Iridium satellite and a Russian military satellite collided above Siberia. In 2019, India conducted an anti-satellite missile test, which successfully hit its target but resulted in 400 pieces of space debris, some of which are still in orbit. Also, the ISS has performed three maneuvers in less than four months to prevent collisions with space debris from other satellites. These instances demonstrate that space debris is becoming an increasing danger.
Once LEO satellites have completed their mission, it is evident that they cannot be left alone in orbit. Like we should leave no trace of our trash after a picnic, space corporations must prepare ahead for the deorbiting of their satellites to ensure that the space environment remains accessible to future generations. As with any other resource on Earth, the space in which our LEO satellites orbit is limited.
The FCC’s regulations require satellite operators to submit a deorbit plan prior to launch and to take steps to deorbit the satellite within five years of the end of its operational life, so it’s evident that such regulations are the best way to reduce the risk of collisions and keep the space environment as clean as possible.
It is also evident that the FCC regulation arrived at the appropriate time. The last one went into effect when the existing technology and associated costs rendered debris collection and satellite downgrading nearly impossible. Due to the latest innovations in reusable rockets and the proliferation of nanosatellites, which are easier to construct, less expensive to launch, and more affordable to bring back home, a five-year period of non-function while in orbit is more than reasonable, especially considering that companies and state powers plan to launch tens of thousands of nanosatellites in various constellations. These technological improvements may result in significant space congestion if they are not properly controlled.
In addition, any industry is typically resistant to new rules, therefore strict enforcement of space debris laws will be beneficial for business. Constant upgrades are required for LEO satellite constellations, and providing the users with the most up-to-date technology in communications or surveillance will provide a competitive advantage for market leaders.
Due to the accessibility of space, the recent collisions with LEO satellites, and the necessity to maintain our space clean for everyone’s safety and security, stricter regulations on space debris were anticipated. The FCC was required to take the initial move. The global space sector is now looking ahead, anticipating that other nations would take similar steps for their enterprises, which is possible. Additionally, because nanosatellite networks will require continual system improvements to meet market demands, it is anticipated that competitiveness will rocket and new actors — some brand new and others from industries such as software, telecoms, and hardware — will enhance our ecosystem.