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Commerce Promises Light-Touch Regulation of Novel Space Activities

Commerce would take "a go-slow, cautious" regulatory approach if given oversight of novel space missions, as proposed in the White House's novel space activities framework (see 2402210036), according to Glenn Tallia, NOAA weather, satellites and research section chief. Speaking Thursday at the FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, he promised a "light-touch," noting concerns that regulation could chill innovation or investment. FCC Space Bureau special counsel Karl Kensinger said the policy proposal leaves the agency's authority largely unaffected.

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NOAA, which since 2020 has deferred to the FCC's orbit debris mitigation regulation, is "rethinking that approach," said Tallia. The agency in 2020 dropped its orbital debris requirements because its earth observation licensees typically also need an FCC license. Proof NOAA applicants were complying with FCC rules was "good enough for us" and avoided duplication, he said. However, foreign-flagged earth observation systems might not face orbital debris requirements by the spectrum authority under which they are registered, he said. He said NOAA will issue a request for information in the next few weeks seeking input on what the agency should do, such as putting orbital debris conditions back in its licenses, or focusing on operators not getting FCC licenses.

The FAA's orbit debris rules are "woefully behind the times," as they were designed for dealing with issues like keeping derelict upper-stage rocket bodies from exploding, said Randy Repcheck, FAA Office of Strategic Management deputy director. The agency hopes to have its pending rules update (see 2312260009) done by year's end, he said. The FAA is proposing a 25-year deadline for deorbiting upper-stage rocket bodies and other components, and Repcheck said the agency saw numerous comments pushing for a much shorter time limit. He said the Europeans are moving to a zero-year standard.

Space and emerging-tech venture capital (VC) experts said space investment is increasingly focused on startups that can show a route to sustainable profitability rather than merely growth and expansion. “There’s more pragmatism” than a couple of years ago, said Jeffery Ugbah, Galaxy Digital director. A space startup's inability to show profitability within four to five years could make it a challenge to attract investment, Ugbah said. Justus Kilian, Space Capital managing partner, said underwriters are more comfortable investing in startups focused on government customers, such as defense and scientific missions, than on commercial entities because demand is clearer. The VC speakers said attractive emerging market segments range from the intersection of space and AI to enhanced positioning technology to augment GPS.

The U.S. saw 117 commercial space launches last year, and that number likely will double within the next couple of years, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker said. The agency has notably reduced airspace disruptions that come with space launches, he said: In 2016, airspace around launch areas would be shut down for four hours on average, and today that window is more commonly two hours.

FAA Office of Operational Safety Executive Director Dan Murray said the launch industry and the agency are interested in streamlining single flight approval. In addition, the FAA is examining ways of evaluating the environmental impact of missions that fly over oceans and potentially drop debris there, Murray added.