Raumfahrt - US Tightens Space Debris Standards; Keeps 25-Year Cap


The updated debris rules address new space activities such as mega-constellations, Cubesats and satellite servicing.


Space debris in orbit around Earth

WASHINGTON: The long-awaited revision of the rules for managing dangerous space junk set new, more restrictive operational standards for US satellite operators — including the Pentagon. However, the new rules stop short of changing the central prohibition on the time post-mission debris can remain in orbit from the current 25 years.

As Breaking D readers will recall, the 25-year rule was the subject of fierce interagency debate, DoD and other agencies pushed NASA to lower the threshold for disposing of dead satellites by removing those in Low Earth Orit (LEO) or boosting those in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO, 36,000 kilometers about the Earth) to a higher ‘graveyard’ orbit.

DoD and many of the other agencies (as well as many commercial operators) wanted a the mandatory disposal deadline reduced because they were concerned that within the next few years thousands and thousands of short-lived satellites will be launched in closely-packed mega-constellations, which outside experts widely assess will dangerously increase space junk.

The changes to the 2001 version of the standards — which apply to all commercial and government operators of spacecraft — include: “a quantitative limit on debris released during normal operations, a probability limit on accidental explosions, probability limits on accidental collisions with large and small debris, and a reliability threshold for successful post-mission disposal.”

Overall, the new standards are more specific about how operators must manage debris.

“The new standard practices established in the update include the preferred disposal options for immediate removal of structures from the near-Earth space environment, a low-risk geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) transfer disposal option, a long-term reentry option, and improved move-away-and-stay-away storage options in medium Earth orbit (MEO) and above GEO,” the Preamble states.

The guidelines were announced today by NASA’s head of Orbital Debris Research J.C. Liou at the first International Orbital Debris Conference, co-sponsored by NASA, the Lunar Planetary Institute and the Universities Space Research Association, as well as Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), in Sugar Land, Texas.

The new standard for preventing collisions of large debris objects (newly defined as bigger than 10 centimeters in diameter) when a satellite is still functioning instructs operators to provide a plan for ensuring that their operational parameters can ensure a probability of crash to less than 1 in 1,000.

Like the old version, the standards are broken down into four baskets of activity, each related to a specific objective. These objectives are:

  • Control Of Debris Released During Normal Operations
  • Minimizing Debris Generated By Accidental Explosions
  • Selection Of Safe Flight Profile And Operational Configuration
  • Postmission Disposal Of Space Structures

The new standards also contain a new fifth section designed to clarify current standards, and, importantly, establish for the first time additional mitigation steps for certain types of space operations that have been essentially unregulated: large constellationsrendezvous and proximity operations, very small satellites (including tiny Cubesats that are hard to detect and track), satellite servicing activities and active debris removal.

All of these types of operations are of interest to DoD for their potential to provide resiliency in the current national security space architecture. They also are of increasing interest to commercial operators who see a burgeoning market in new commercial applications such as providing global access to the Internet, re-fueling satellites on orbit, removing debris from orbit and even future asteroid mining.

Further, regulation of these on-orbit activities is being debated both within the United States as well as by other countries such as Japan, and within international forum including at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). 

Indeed, SPD-3 also says that the US should take the lead in creating new international debris mitigation standards, as well as in creating a new Space Traffic Management (STM) regime suited for the new, more crowded space environment. The State Department is expected to evangelize the new standards in upcoming bilateral meetings and the annual meetings of the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in February.

Whether the new US standards will be seen by other nations as going far enough to protect the surprisingly limited space environment of, however, remains to be seen.

The revamped version of the Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices was mandated by President Donald Trump’s June 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3). NASA was given the lead of the interagency working group (IWG) that included DoD, the State, Commerce, and Transportation departments, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The FCC, responsible for licensing commercial satellite communications operators (and which proffered its own version of new debris rules to the chagrin of other agencies) had a consulting role.

The dispute was kicked upstairs to the National Space Council, comprising agency heads and chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. (We have heard authoritatively that in part as a result of our September story, only principals — no staff — were allowed in those meetings.)

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