FCC takes on space junk: Satellites must be removed from orbit 5 years after completing missions

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that nonfunctioning satellites must come down within five years.

In a 4-0 vote Thursday, the FCC adopted new rules requiring operators of satellites in low-Earth orbit to “dispose” of them no less than five years after completing their missions. The regulations replace a decades-old 25-year guideline for deorbiting satellites after they have completed their mission.

The 25-year rule was based on recommendations proposed by NASA in the 1990s. The space agency has since recommended a shorter timeline, according to CNN.

“For years, it has been the recommended practice for satellite operators to deorbit their spacecraft within 25 years of completing their missions. But 25 years is a long time. There is no reason to wait that long anymore, especially in low-Earth orbit,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the meeting.

As of 2021, there were more than 4,800 operational satellites in orbit, most of which were low-Earth orbit satellites. In addition to the thousands of satellites, the European Space Agency says there are at least 36,500 objects bigger than a baseball in an uncontrolled orbit around the Earth.

Experts have warned that the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris circling the planet threaten functioning satellites, including the International Space Station.

According to The Associated Press, dead satellites pose a double danger: they can collide with other spacecraft or be hit by debris, potentially breaking up into tiny pieces that become a new hazard.

The nightmare scenario would be an ever-growing cascade of collisions resulting in Kessler syndrome — named after the NASA scientist who first warned about it four decades ago — that could render near-Earth orbits impossible for future generations.