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FCC May Crack Down on Dead Satellites

If there’s any truth to the futures depicted in “Wall-E” and “Gravity,” then you know space trash is a serious problem

If you believe there’s any truth to the futures depicted in movies like “Wall-E” and “Gravity,” then you know space trash presents a serious problem to low-earth orbit operations. Now, the FCC may be looking to crack down on major contributors to the junk heap.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has introduced new rules which, if adopted, would require satellite operators to get rid of satellites five years after they stop functioning, a significantly shorter window than the current 25 years. According to Rosenworcel, thousands of satellites have been shot into orbit since the ’50s and many times they were launched with the understanding that they’d probably just keep circling the globe after going kaputt.

But soon satellite operators may need to start considering an abbreviated timeline for picking up after themselves.

“Our space economy is moving fast. For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to expand,” Rosenworcel said. “It will mean more accountability and less risk of collisions that increase debris. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this effort.”

The proposed rules would require satellites that end their missions or sink below 2,000 kilometers altitude to get out of orbit ASAP or at least within five years. The FCC may also consider even shorter disposal deadlines for larger satellite constellations.

The proposed dead satellite rules are part of the FCC’s Space Innovation docket that includes a proceeding to promote the development of in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing capabilities in the United States, according to a news release.

Plenty of companies are already advancing efforts to build long-term manufacturing, research and other facilities in low-earth orbit so there’s likely lots of interest in ensuring new developments don’t face heightened risk of being clobbered by space trash.

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