FCC’s Proposed Change to Orbital Debris Rule Draws Lawmaker Worry

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The leaders noted that coordination in this area is important, and the agency’s change could cause confusion.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee leaders sent a letter on Tuesday to Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel expressing concerns about the agency’s proposed new rule to address orbital debris. 

Earlier this month, the FCC proposed replacing longstanding guidelines. The agency’s proposal would require satellites that end their mission in or pass through the low-Earth orbit region—defined by NASA as anything with an altitude of 1,200 miles and below—to deorbit as soon as possible but within five years, instead of the current 25 year timeframe. 

In the letter, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas; Ranking Member Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Don Beyer, D-Va.; and Ranking Member Brian Babin, R-Texas, expressed concern about the FCC acting alone. The House leaders noted that Vice President Kamala Harris stressed “the importance of coordination and collaboration on federal space activities.” As a result, the leaders asserted that the agency’s action could cause confusion, as this area is typically highly coordinated. 

“As leaders of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, we understand the importance of supporting a safe, sustainable space environment,” the leaders said. “However, we are concerned that the Commission’s proposal to promulgate rules on this matter could create uncertainty and potentially conflicting guidance.”

The house leaders noted that NASA has led coordination, including international coordination, on space debris mitigation and associated guidelines with other space agencies over several decades. 

“This U.S. leadership in coordinating orbital debris guidelines provides a strong foundation for leading other areas of space sustainability,” house leaders said. “Actions on orbital debris mitigation that stand apart from or conflict with federal government guidelines could lead to confusion that, in effect, undermines, rather than strengthens, national and international efforts to reduce and mitigate the risk of orbital debris.”

The leaders added that the committee has jurisdiction “over ‘outer space, including exploration and control thereof’” and legislation for regulatory authority as well as oversight about orbital debris has historically been considered before the committee. The committee encouraged the FCC to rely on them for this matter.

This most recent letter is a follow-up to previous letters sent in April 2020, which noted that the FCC does not have clear authority from Congress to promulgate these orbital debris regulations and that FCC action could create confusion and hinder the agency’s work and U.S. space leadership. 

The FCC is set to vote on this proposal on Sept. 29, and the committee letter seeks for the FCC to instead postpone consideration.