Lunar Future Raising Questions About FCC's Regulatory Reach, Readiness
With the FCC facing growing interest from space operators seeking approval for operations on and above the moon's surface, the agency also needs to update its rules for that lunar future, space policy experts told us. The commercial interest in the moon also should trigger ITU action, they said. The FCC didn't comment.
The commission has sole authority over commercial and nonfederal spectrum use, so Lockheed and others have no other place to go for regulatory approval for proposed lunar systems, said Audrey Allison, Aerospace Corp. senior project leader-Center for Space Policy and Strategy. She said the same way ships in international waters have to carry FCC radio licenses, it "makes absolutely perfect sense" that the agency's regulatory reach would extend to U.S.-flagged missions on the moon.
The FCC's Part 25 rules cover satellite services or spacecraft outside normal satcom satellites, and lunar operations would presumably fall there, Allison said. She said there would likely "need to be some tweaks" to address lunar operations, such as rules for a lunar surface communications network, she said. Additionally, the spectrum allocation for space research service doesn't cover a lot of frequency bands, and would likely need to be addressed, she said.
The Outer Space Treaty's Article VIII, about government jurisdiction and control over space missions they allow, makes the U.S. government responsible for overseeing communications on the moon, but planned lunar operations are starting to face lack of clear statutory authority among regulatory agencies, said Chris Johnson, Secure World Foundation space law adviser. Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which covers the FCC's rules and regulations, doesn't say anything about statutory authority or jurisdiction or rules for the moon, he said. "That's fine" for Lockheed Martin and others to seek regulatory approval, as they should as innovators, Johnson said. Those applications in turn should trigger action by the FCC to make clear it has authority or to make clear its mandate doesn't extend there and needs statutory authority to do so, he said.
The U.S. interest in the moon also needs to spur international action in the form of ITU coordination, Johnson said. No one wants a situation where the U.S. allocation of frequencies used for services is different from what others use, he said: "We are not the only nation going back to the moon."
Pending before the agency now are applications filed by Lockheed Martin this spring for equipment to be used in a lunar communications network (see 2303160002) and a 2022 application for a 15-year license to operate its planned Parsec lunar communications system using the S, X and Ka bands. Also pending is a 2021 application by Intuitive Machines seeking approval for communications services for its Nova-C/IM-1 Lunar Lander (see 2104260004). The FCC dismissed an application last year by Astrobotic Technology for its Peregrine Mission 1 to deliver government and commercial science payloads and instruments to the moon's surface, saying the application didn't fit the licensing regime for small-scale space operations under which it was filed (see 22206160049). Astrobotic hasn't refiled under standard Part 25 rules and didn't comment.
The FCC's 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference Advisory Committee couldn't agree on a WRC-23 proposal that there be a WRC-2027 agenda item about studying spectrum for communications on the moon's surface, with Lockheed and CTIA pushing differing proposals.
The commission in its in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing notice of inquiry approved in August (see 2208050023) asks questions about communications matters that could be raised with ISAM missions beyond earth's orbit or on another celestial body, including the role of existing allocations in supporting those communications, as well as what commission rules might need changing to facilitate ISAM missions beyond orbit.
With Europe, China and Japan all planning lunar exploration and settlements, a global or extra-global regulatory environment is needed to ensure certainty and international recognition, and the ITU should start moving on that to ensure communications systems of different nations can coexist, Allison said. ITU is seemingly well-set for now with regulatory ability to address lunar issues, with spectrum already located for space research series that has been used by NASA and the European Space Agency, Allison said. However, all the spectrum assignments that might be wanted across all the bands for lunar operations aren't necessarily in place, she said.
A lot of the spectrum allocations used on earth would likely be replicated on the moon just because equipment development would rely on available technology and take advantage of global standards like the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, Allison said. The moon is far away enough that using the same frequencies shouldn't cause interference with terrestrial operations or satellites in earth orbit, she said.
International regulations for lunar communications "are very bare bones," said Johnson. The normal process of coordination at the national level and then taking that coordination international could be protracted for the moon because of unclear FCC authority and the lack of allocations set aside by the ITU for lunar telecoms, he said. That also could be a hang-up for the FCC in granting the applications before it, he said. All of this should spark planning and international conversations, he said. He said before the FCC grants any pending applications there needs to be interagency discussions involving the FAA, State and the U.S. WRC delegation, perhaps coordinated by the National Space Council, discussing how this would play into U.S. priorities and lunar strategy.
NASA emailed us that it "follows the standard U.S. spectrum regulatory processes for its lunar and deep space missions [which includes] obtaining system certification and frequency authorizations" through NTIA. NASA said it and its Space Communications and Navigation program "are studying the requirements and infrastructure needed to support NASA’s planned activities at the Moon, including commercial services." It said NTIA and the FCC "will continue working jointly to review and approve commercial operations in the lunar and deep space environment. NASA leverages commercial services already in space, such as commercial satellite communications, as well as the agency’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs for the International Space Station. These established coordination processes provide a regulatory requirement blueprint for commercial partners operating in the lunar and deep space environment in the future."