Federal policy focuses on speedy removal of space debris

Nov. 17, 2022

By Lily Anderson
Staff Writer

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a policy on Sept. 29 that sets a five-year limit for organizations to remove dead satellites from orbit. Previously, the FCC allowed companies 25 years to remove the debris.

The FCC’s new policy is meant to combat the increasing amount of space junk and debris, as there are more than 3,000 dead satellites in Earth’s atmosphere and over 30,000 objects that are at least 10 centimeters in size. 

“As more and more space junk and debris accumulates in orbit around Earth, it can pose a serious obstacle to space travel missions,” said biology and environmental science teacher Ms. Manzella. “The more debris that accumulates, the more chances that a launched spacecraft could end up colliding with the orbiting debris.”

When an agency is sending a spacecraft into orbit and it collides with space debris, the mission could fail and render the spacecraft useless, ultimately creating more space debris.

“Think about how much damage a piece of uplifted, moving debris can cause to a windshield of a car at speeds much slower,” Manzella said. 

She said the FCC’s new policy will cost companies more in the short term.

“Any form of environmental clean-up [and] remediation, especially in space, can be very costly,” Manzella said. “However, long-term, it could prevent incurring costs from trying to repair damaged equipment, satellites and spacecrafts or from replacing failed missions.”

Organizations remove their satellites through a process called de-orbiting, which requires a satellite to be moved to a lower part of Earth’s atmosphere, where it burns up. 

President of the Environmental Club senior Frank D’Amico said the removal of satellites can have a negative effect on the environment. 

“The chemicals [the satellites] release as they burn up on [re-entry] will rip through the atmosphere,” D’Amico said.

When a satellite de-orbits, there is a chance that it will not fully burn up. The larger the satellite, the greater the risk of it staying intact upon re-entry

“When space junk falls out of the sky… it can land almost anywhere,” D’Amico said. “[The] odds are people will send them into the ocean or perfectly good growing land.”

Sending satellites into space also consumes fossil fuels, which is the main contributor to global warming. 

“[Companies] use a lot of fossil fuels to go into space,” said junior Samantha Cardo, who is a member of the Astronomy Club. “Now that there’s space junk being put into [space] more, it doesn’t help [the environment] whatsoever.”

Although the FCC’s new policy only pertains to organizations in the United States, it will have an impact on agencies that collaborate and trade with U.S. organizations.

“You have to plan [the removal of satellites] out specifically and coordinate with other companies,” Cardo said. “Technology is being used more… and more companies are using satellites, so more satellites are being sent out.”

The importance of sustainability is spreading throughout the world. Manzella said the FCC’s policy is just one way of achieving a cleaner future.

“Just like we need to utilize sustainable development and resource management when dealing with environmental issues on Earth’s surface, we also need to take a sustainable approach in developing equipment and crafts used in [low Earth orbit] and space travel as well as managing the waste generated from this activity,” said Manzella.

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