(CNN) — Satellites that are no longer in service must take off from the sky much more quickly, under a new rule passed by US government agencies on Thursday — all in the name of tackling debris in Earth orbit.
Idle satellites in low-Earth orbit, the area already most congested with satellites, must be pulled from orbit “as soon as possible and no later than five years after the end of their mission,” according to the new Federal Communications commission rule.
That is far less time than the 25-year rule, which has long been criticized as being too lax. Even NASA devices years that the timeframe should be reduced from 25 years to five years.
“Twenty-five years is a long time. There is no longer any reason to wait that long, especially in low Earth orbit,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at Thursday’s meeting. The FCC rule was passed unanimously.
The goal of this rule is to prevent the dangerous spread of garbage and debris in space. It is estimated that there are already more than 100 million pieces from space junk flying uncontrolled through orbit, ranging in size from a penny to an entire launch vehicle. Much of that debris, experts say, is too small to track.
Collisions in space have happened before. And each collision can span thousands of new pieces of debris, each of which could trigger further collisions. A well-known theory called “Kessler Syndrome” warns that space debris can set off catastrophic chain reactions, potentially leading to Earth’s orbit becoming so littered that future space exploration and satellite launches could become impractical and even impossible.
More than half of the roughly 10,000 satellites the world has sent into orbit since the 1950s are now obsolete and considered “space junk,” Rosenworcel said, adding that the debris poses a risk to communications and security.
The FCC plan had been questioned by some US Legislature who have said the rules could create “conflicting guidance” and without clear congressional authority. But voting on Thursday went ahead anyway.
“More than the $279 billion satellite and launch industries and the jobs that depend on them are at risk,” according to an FCC document released earlier this month. “If left unchecked, orbital debris could block all of these benefits and reduce opportunity in almost every sector of our economy.”
The number of satellites in low Earth orbit, which stretches in orbit about 2,000 km or 1,200 miles, has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks in large part to massive new “megaconstellations” of small satellites pouring into space. mainly from trading companies. Most notably, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched about 3,000 satellites for his space-based internet service, Starlink.
There are also plans to launch tens of thousands of new satellites into low-Earth orbit in the coming years, FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington noted during Thursday’s meeting.
Commercial companies have routinely promised to take the debris problem seriously, and SpaceX had already agreed to follow the recommended five-year rule for deorbiting defunct satellites.
The FCC also clarified that it will apply the rule not only to the US satellite operators it oversees, but also to “non-US licensed satellites and systems seeking entry into the US market.”
“A true Cambrian explosion in commercial space operations is on the horizon, and we had better be ready when it arrives,” Simington said.
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