Apr 28, 2020 - Science

FCC's updated space junk rules reflect increasing number of satellites in orbit

A GIF of outer space.

The FCC last week updated its rules around the mitigation of space junk for the first time since 2004, imposing more limits on companies that wish to send their wares to orbit.

Why it matters: Experts are increasingly worried about the number of satellites launching to orbit and how they could contribute to the creation of space junk.

  • Companies like SpaceX and Amazon have big plans to launch potentially thousands of small satellites to low orbits, which — if precautions aren't taken — could clog up parts of space and make it difficult to access them safely.

Details: The new FCC rules are focused on making companies more transparent about their plans to safely de-orbit their spacecraft as they reach the end of their functional lives and how they plan to avoid collisions while in orbit.

  • Because of the new rules, companies will now need to disclose the risk of collision and the possible risk of casualties caused by their satellites re-entering the atmosphere, according to the FCC.
  • The updated rules also lay out guidelines for how companies should share their satellite tracking data.

Yes, but: While the rules place new limits on these ambitious companies, the FCC held back on imposing strict regulations championed by some advocates, according to SpaceNews.

  • The FCC didn't vote on a requirement that satellite constellations pose less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing or harming a person as spacecraft are de-orbited.
  • The commission is also planning to continue studying whether companies should be required to compensate the U.S. government if their satellites cause harm in orbit.
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