Raumfahrt - FCC Risks Political Fire With Draft Space Junk Rules The bond requirement is a great way to ensure that no one licenses in the US, and the indemnification requirement is vague one industr



WASHINGTON: New draft FCC rules designed to prevent satellite collisions and creation of dangerous space debris have sparked strong backlash from a number of commercial firms — in contrast to past advocacy by some within DoD for even more cautious operational practices.

Industry sources say that top execs from a number of companies are already planning to take their concerns to the National Space Council, and to senior officials at the Commerce Department in hopes of garnering political backing for their concerns.

Among the new requirements, issued in a 119-page report issued by the FCC late Thursday, satellite operators must elaborate in licensing applications on how they intend to ensure that DoD’s 18th Space Control Squadron can track their spacecraft. The 18th Space Control Squadron, located at Vandenberg AFB, operates the US military’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) that detects and tracks adversary satellites, as well as other space objects.

The FCC licenses US commercial communications satellites and the use of radio-frequency spectrum. The new set of draft rules follow an initial announcement of its plans to revamp its debris mitigation requirements in November 2018 that annoyed other agencies involved at the time in crafting government-wide guidelines on space junk under President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive-3. That interagency group, led by NASA, wrapped up its work on the new Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) in December with the approval of its recommendations by the National Space Council. The ODMSP recommendations apply to all space operators — including the Pentagon, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that regulates Earth observation satellites.

The proposed FCC rules, which go beyond the approved ODMSP, stop short of mandating that satellites carry an active system for identification and tracking, such as those required by commercial ships at sea. Many space experts, including at DoD and within other government agencies, have argued that such systems — either radio-frequency transponders or light reflectors — are needed in order for SSN to monitor the thousands of small satellites being launched into mega-constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO, below 2,000 kilometers in altitude.)

The FCC draft regulations do include a raft of reporting requirements about a satellite’s planned orbital position and operations, including planned future maneuvers. These reporting requirements, the FCC says, are aimed at helping both it and the 18th Space Control Squadron determine how likely any new satellites are to crash into a neighbor.

To encourage companies to cooperate, the FCC makes it clear the licensing process will lean favorably toward those who share as much information as possible with DoD and other satellite operators to help avoid on-orbit collisions and the creation of space junk: “We will consider favorably in an application the use of radio frequency transponder tags or other unique telemetry markers that can support the identification of objects once in orbit. Overall, we want to emphasize the importance of operators planning for satellite identification in advance so that they are able to troubleshoot potential issues, particularly for multi-satellite deployments.”

Why are they taking this tack? The use by mega-constellation operators, such as SpaceX, of specialized launch equipment that spits many small satellites into orbit at the same time has been bedeviling DoD space trackers, as it is easy to lose sight of them. In addition, SpaceX’s lack of a standard identification system for its Starlink satellites has caused concerns — although SpaceX has been working with Vandenberg to resolve the issue.

In addition, the FCC rules mandate that satellites operating above the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS, 400 kilometers in altitude) would need to be kitted out with propulsion units or otherwise be able to maneuver out of the way of a possible collision.

Some industry sources worried in formal comments on the proposed rules that the maneuverability requirement could reduce the utility of tiny and low-cost Cubesats, which are increasingly popular. It also raises questions about whether US operators might be hurt in the marketplace if foreign governments do not issue similar requirements.

“It’s interesting to note that the FCC is looking to a maneuverability requirement above 400km altitude. This is a significant step and will have many implications for future domestic operators. The question is how many international operators and other nations will follow that concept,” Josef Koller of Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, told me.

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