FAA Proposes Rule To Limit Commercial Space Vehicles Debris

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The FAA has proposed a rule designed to limit new orbital debris from commercial space vehicles, citing the need to “reduce the potential for collisions with spacecraft and satellites to promote a sustainable space environment.” According to the agency, current estimates put the number of orbital objects measuring 10 cm or greater at over 23,000 with projections for objects between 1 and 10 cm coming in at one-half million. The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) focuses on how commercial operators will be required to dispose of the upper stages of their launch vehicles.

“If left unchecked, the accumulation of orbital debris will increase the risk of collisions and clutter orbits used for human spaceflight and for satellites providing communications, weather and global positioning system services,” the FAA said. “By strictly limiting the uncontrolled reentry of upper stages, the FAA seeks to mitigate the risk to people on the ground and in flight due to its significant size and mass and the uncertainty of where it will land.”

The NPRM (PDF) lays out five upper stage disposal options including conducting a controlled reentry, moving it to a less congested storage or graveyard orbit, sending it on an Earth-escape orbit, retrieving it within five years and performing an uncontrolled atmospheric disposal or natural decay within 25 years. The FAA noted that the proposed rule would “align commercial space orbital debris mitigation practices with those accepted by the U.S. government for its space missions.” The rule will be open for public comment for 90 days following its publication in the Federal Register.

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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34 COMMENTS

  1. Where does earth end and space begin? More specifically, does the FAA have jurisdiction in space? After all, it’s space not air. By definition, aviation is the flying or operating of aircraft. I suppose the argument could be made that a spacecraft needs to first be an aircraft before it becomes a spacecraft. However, that detail leads back to my first two questions.

      • Like Cameron said, it’s already being done in the USA and like JMac said, the FAA has no authority in space. My thoughts is that the FAA is just trying to expand it’s bureaucracy now that government launches are practically nill.

        • They don’t have authority in space, but they do have authority over launches and giving permits. So in addition to making sure rockets will launch safely and not careen into population centers without a means to stop them, they’ll also regulate how the rockets and satellites will spend their final days.

          And, as pointed out, most (but not all?) are already doing this. As the FAA itself said, the proposed rules will “align commercial space orbital debris mitigation practices with those accepted by the U.S. government for its space missions.” So basically they’re codifying the status quo.

    • Yes, like the two countries who each deliberately targeted and struck their own orbiting space vehicles. Each deliberate collision generated a large constellation of space detritus… junk.

  2. FAA…..really? So now that the planet has decades of earth junk orbiting NOW they want to do something about it? The FAA has their plate full right here on earth………they need to just stay in their lane.

  3. One can certainly argue that the FAA doesn’t have jurisdiction in space…but on the same basis, the FAA shouldn’t have jurisdiction in the air beyond the 12-mile limit. Yet we do accept the FAA’s authority in international airspace, at least for airplanes registered in the US. Why should space be any different?

    • Certainly, one can argue whether the FAA is the right regulating agency. Possibly a brand-new agency is needed, just like the US created Space Force.

  4. Is this the most pressing issue the FAA has on its plate? There are many more ‘down to earth’ that could be addressed first and have a more positive impact on humanity.

    • When space junk starts taking out GPS satellites, then it becomes a “down-to-earth” problem. And it’s not simply a matter of “oh well, back to paper charts and road atlases.” GPS satellites are really just atomic clocks. Their timing signals are vital for…

      …cell phone calls
      …electrical grids
      …weather radar
      …ATM transactions

      …and a host of other everyday, down-to-earth functions. Sure, we got by in the past without GPS. Just like we once got by without cars. But removing GPS from our modern world would be as disruptive as trying to replace all cars with horses.

      • Not much threat to GPS. It’s in “Medium Earth Orbit” about 10,000 miles or so from Earth. Not too many satellites at those kinds of altitudes, so any “junk” density is extremely low.

        It’s different in Low Earth Orbit, running from ~100 miles to ~1,000 miles. This is where humans have been launching most of their satellites since 1957. Anything below ~300 nautical miles is going to decay and re-enter after a few years, but from ~300 to 1000 miles, you can end up with a lot of junk hanging around.

        New GPS satellites, of course, have to transition these altitudes on their way to MEO altitudes, but the exposure time is short. Even if they run into Commander Cody’s left glove, it doesn’t affect the OPERATIONAL GPS constellation…just knocks out a replacement before it goes into use.

        • “Not much threat to GPS. …Not too many satellites at those kinds of altitudes, so any “junk” density is extremely low.”

          One estimate is that 19% of space debris can affect GPS satellites*, so the threat may not be extremely low. Plus, because of how GPS is so integrated into modern society beyond navigation, the stakes are high.

          But to concentrate on just GPS is to miss the forest for the trees. GPS was given as just one example of how satellites are a “down-to-earth” necessity. The main point is that all satellites are vital for today’s economy. So preventing future space junk protects other satellites as well as GPS.

          And the rules the FAA are proposing are what most responsible companies are already doing. Having the rules codified will help insure all U.S. operators are abiding by them (unless Boeing uses some laid-off 737-Max engineers to build their next satellite…).

          * I question the 19% stat a bit myself, as the source is a company offering space-debris-removal services.

          • I, too, am skeptical of the 19% stat.

            There’s an article on “GPS World” that discusses the danger (“Space Debris Endangers GPS”). It says that the debris environment for MEO is 100 times less than GEO.

            It appears, too, that they’re basing that threat on carom-like collisions in LEO that will theoretically push LEO debris into altitudes that can endanger MEO birds. Seems highly speculative to me. Even more speculative, they’re assuming that collisions in HEO (e.g., Molniya) will also endanger MEO, which I think is even more speculative. A piece broken off a Molniya bird will spend only ~40 minutes a day within 500 miles of the altitude…and only eight minutes within 100 miles.

            I don’t question the need for debris-reduction techniques for satellites; LEO is getting pretty ugly. Just don’t think the threat at MEO is that major.

            Speaking of laid off 737 engineers…after four years driving early-warning satellites for the Air Force, I went to work for…. ?You guessed it, Boeing. Worked on the space side my entire career. Never worked on an airliner, so you can’t blame THAT on me. 🙂

            I was going to caution folks that I’m not an expert in space debris. But then I remembered…between my Air Force time and my Boeing career, I worked on 18 satellites.

            Only one is still operational (the International Space Station) so I guess I spent 40 years creating space debris…..

    • Granted, it’s an easy win, but likely needs doing. I have a theory most of what people think are part of some grand government plan are actually just agencies trying to show they are doing their jobs while doing the least actual work possible. It’s a lot easier to catch tens of thousands of regular people on minor, technical violations to juice the stats than go out out and catch or prevent pros conducting serious crimes.

  5. “Possibly a brand-new agency is needed”

    Are you kidding? Another bunch of bureaucrats bleeding the taxpayers while accomplishing nothing of value. Ya, that’s the ticket.

    • If one does not feel that regulation is needed, then a regulating agency is also not needed. However, if one feels that civilian space operations must have government control, then one has to decided whether to go with a brand-new agency dedicated to the task, or an existing government agency with no expertise in the task.

      Part of the problem is that there are international agreements regarding the use of space, and the creation of space junk. The US is a signatory to these. Who, then enforces the restrictions on US space companies? Do we leave it with, say, the State Department, who has far less space experience than even the FAA?

  6. I bet the Communist Chinese, the Indians, and the Russians are shaking in their boots. The FAA can’t manage runway incursions, much less space junk. By the way, somebody please tell John Kerry the Communist Chinese are building 300 coal fired generating plants a year.

    • Actually, the Chinese, Indians, and Russian satellites are just as endangered as ours are. Satellites doing the same sort of missions operate in the same range of altitudes, so their reconnaissance, Earth science, and low-altitude communications satellites are just as at risk as ours are. Because they probably have to use a higher percentage of the countries’ GDP to get stuff into orbit, it’s of even more interest to them to ensure their safety.

  7. Ridiculous. How about concentrating on updating the atc systems? How about addressing some of the outdated regulations? How about making it about aviation and flying again instead of space debris. Again, this is nonsense.

    • I agree. The service that the FAA provides air carriers, especially pt135 certificate holders, can be a joke. Pt 91 is even worse. Unless Congress is actually willing to fund the FAA like it should be, the FAA doesn’t need to get into things it has little knowledge of. Just look at the model airplane mess they have created!

  8. The “native American with the tear in his eye” who called himself Iron Eyes Cody, was really a Sicilian American named Oscar DeCorti. Born in Louisiana he was an actor playing the part of an American Indian for most of his life. As far is known, he had no American Indian DNA. Kinda like the FAA he realized you can go far with obfuscation and BS.

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