The FCC has voted to set a five-year deadline for deorbiting obsolete satellites

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Defunct satellites must get out of the sky much faster under a new rule approved by U.S. federal regulators on Thursday, all in the name of combating debris in Earth’s orbit.

Unused satellites in low orbit, which is the most congested area with satellites, must be removed from orbit “as soon as possible, and no later than five years after the end of the mission,” according to the new Federal Communications. Commission rule.

This is much less time than the 25-year rule that has been criticized as too lax. Even years ago NASA recommended that the 25-year period should be reduced to five years.

“Twenty-five years is a long time. There’s no reason to wait that long, especially in low Earth orbit,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at Thursday’s meeting. The FCC rule was approved unanimously.

The purpose of this rule is to prevent the dangerous accumulation of garbage and debris in space. There are already estimated to be more than 100 million pieces of space junk traveling uncontrolled in orbit, ranging from a dime to an entire rocket booster. Much of that debris, experts say, is too small to track.

Space collisions have happened before. And each collision can have thousands of new pieces of debris, each of which can cause even more collisions. One popular theory, called the “Kessler syndrome,” warns that it is possible for space junk to create a disastrous chain reaction, causing the Earth’s orbit to become so cluttered with junk that future space exploration and satellite launches may be impossible or even impossible. .

More than half of the roughly 10,000 satellites the world has put into orbit since the 1950s are obsolete and “space junk,” Rosenworcel said, adding that the debris poses communications and security risks.

The FCC plan was questioned by some US lawmakers, who said the rules could create “conflicting guidelines” and lack clear congressional authority. But Thursday’s vote went ahead anyway.

“At stake is more than the $279 trillion a year satellite and launch vehicle industry and the jobs that depend on them,” according to an FCC document released earlier this month. “Unchecked, orbital debris could block all of these benefits and reduce opportunities in nearly every sector of our economy.”

The number of satellites in low Earth orbit, that is, the sphere of orbit that extends about 2,000 km or 1,200 miles, has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks in large part to the massive and new “megaconstellations” of small satellites that are pouring into space. largely by commercial companies. Most notably, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched about 3,000 satellites into space for its space-based Internet service, Starlink.

There are also plans to put tens of thousands of new satellites into Earth orbit in the coming years, FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said at Thursday’s meeting.

Commercial companies have pledged to take the debris issue seriously, and SpaceX had already agreed to meet the recommended five-year rule for de-orbiting defunct satellites.

But there has long been a broader push within the space community to codify new regulations. So the FCC announced in early September that it plans to at least vote on updates to US regulations.

The FCC also specified that it will apply the rule not only to the US satellite operators it oversees, but also to “unlicensed US satellites and systems seeking access to the US market”.

“A real Cambrian explosion of commercial space operations is on the horizon, and we better be ready when it arrives,” Simington said.