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5-Year Deorbit Rule Won't Prompt Timing, Licensing Locale Shakeups

The five-year satellite disposal requirement that just went into effect won't trigger a faster pace of low earth orbit satellite launches as operators won't try to put vehicles in orbit under the regulatory wire, space experts tell us. In addition, the new rule shouldn't propel LEO missions to seek licensing in nations outside the U.S., they believe. The five-year deorbit rule adopted in 2022 (see 2209290017) covers all launches after Sept. 29.

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There isn't any sign of a rush to launch before the September deadline arrives, Dale Skran, National Space Society chief operating officer, said in an email. The rule change "has been in the works for a long time," and mega-constellation operators "are well-equipped to comply with the new rule," he added. Skran said the biggest space junk danger comes not from commercial mega-constellations but anti-satellite weapons testing and derelict, government-launched rocket stages and large satellites. "Reasonable and low-impact regulations to mitigate space debris enables future space development projects," he said.

Launch constraints are due largely to satellite manufacturing and supply issues, emailed Troy Thomas, head of Boston Consulting Group's space initiative. In the near term, those constraints mean launch prioritization is driven more by business case needs than by the FCC's deorbit rule, he said.

In an email, Hans Carlson, TZero Consulting CEO, said, "Most folks have already booked and are working on launches and so are planning accordingly." For example, SpaceX is already requiring operators to comply with the five-year rule on Transporter missions, although there are some waivers for older missions, he said. "In general most folks are adjusting to the 5-year rule and planning propulsion or other de-orbit approaches, or just flying at a lower altitude," he noted, but added there is some impact on lower-cost satellites not planning a propulsion system.

Similarly, many systems are already operating with a five-year deorbit window, a notable example being SpaceX moving its Starlink constellation from an original orbit of close to 1,000 km to roughly 550 km for that reason, emailed BryceTech Analytics' Director Carie Mullins and Program Analyst Nick Boensch. "Most major space companies already adhere to best practices that aim for post-mission disposal timelines fewer than five years from end of mission," they said. The Space Safety Coalition's best practices include five-year deorbits for LEO satellites using chemical or electric propulsion to deorbit, they said. The World Economic Forum and European Space Agency have similar standards, Mullins and Boensch said.

Multiple space experts told us that even if satellite operators wanted to speed up deployment before September, that launch cadence isn't likely to accelerate because of limits on available launch capacity and on the ability to move high-priority customers. BryceTech's Mullins and Boensch said SpaceX has limited slots for smallsat deployments before September 2024. Larger satellites, and the dedicated launches they require, are less able to be expedited given limited launch options and prioritization of certain payloads and customers such as government payloads or payloads needing to meet FCC licensing deadlines, they said.

Given the years it can take to get a payload on a launch manifest -- compounded when dealing with multiple satellites such as a constellation -- "there is neither the time nor the launch vehicle availability to rush to get satellites into LEO before September," emailed Laura Forczyk, executive director-founder of space consultancy Astralytical. Constellation operators generally want to be good stewards of the orbital environment "because irresponsible behavior and crowded orbits harm everyone, themselves included," she added. "It costs resources for satellite operators to respond to conjunction warnings and conduct their own risk analysis," Forczyk said. "The FCC 5-year rule is generally seen favorably by satellite operators, even if they are burdened by its implementation."

BryceTech's Mullins and Boensch said the rule likely won't affect how many LEO missions are licensed in the US vs. elsewhere because most space operators will want to have U.S. market access as well, and thus would be subject to the rule. They said the industry continues to see foreign companies establish U.S. offices and headquarters to pursue business with U.S. customers.