Space Commerce

FCC Adopts New “5-Year Rule” For Deorbiting Satellites

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
October 1, 2022
Filed under , ,
FCC Adopts New “5-Year Rule” For Deorbiting Satellites

The Federal Communications Commission today adopted new rules requiring satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within 5 years of completing their missions.

The new rules shorten the decades-old 25-year guideline for deorbiting satellites post-mission, taking an important step in a new era for space safety and orbital debris policy.

The FCC takes seriously the short- and long-term challenges of orbital debris. Defunct satellites, discarded rocket cores, and other debris now fill the space environment, creating challenges for current and future missions. There are more than 4,800 satellites operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and the vast majority of those are commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The new 5-year rule for deorbiting satellites will mean more accountability and less risk of costly collisions that increase debris.

The Report and Order adopted today requires satellites ending their mission in or passing through the low-Earth orbit region (below 2,000 kilometers altitude) to deorbit as soon as practicable but no later than five years after mission completion. This is the first concrete rule on this topic, replacing a long-standing guideline. These new rules will also afford satellite companies a transition period of two years. The mission length and deorbit timeline for any given satellite are established through its application process with the FCC’s International Bureau.

The FCC’s Space Innovation docket is addressing the new space age with modernized regulations to match the new realities, support for technological innovation in this burgeoning economic sector, and taking seriously the space sustainability questions that come with rapidly growing and changing public and private space endeavors.

The FCC recently launched a new proceeding for in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities. The agency is making more spectrum available to fuel the nation’s space ambitions, including identifying spectrum for the first time to support commercial launches and proposing new spectrum sharing rules to increase competition. The satellite and launch industry is now an estimated $279 billion-a-year sector.

Action by the Commission September 29, 2022 by Second Report and Order (FCC 22-74). Chairwoman Rosenworcel, Commissioners Carr, Starks, and Simington approving. Chairwoman Rosenworcel, Commissioners Starks and Simington issuing separate statements.

IB Docket Nos. 22-271, 18-313

This is an unofficial announcement of Commission action. Release of the full text of a Commission order constitutes official action. See MCI v. FCC, 515 F.2d 385 (D.C. Cir. 1974).

Full report document


  1. Today, the Federal Communications Commission takes a first step toward ushering in a new era for space safety and orbital debris policy. We do so by adopting a first-ever rule requiring non- geostationary satellite operators to deorbit their satellites after the end of their operations to minimize the risk of collisions that would create debris. Our action today formalizes a longstanding orbital debris guideline, updates it to better reflect the realities of today’s space activities, and uniformly applies it to space stations in LEO.
  2. It is widely recognized that the growing challenge of orbital debris poses a risk to the nation’s space ambitions. Defunct satellites, discarded rocket cores, and other debris now fill the space environment creating challenges for future missions. Moreover, there are more than 4,800 satellites currently operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and the vast majority of those are commercial satellites operating at altitudes below 2,000 km—the upper limit for LEO.1 Many of these were launched in the past two years alone, and projections for future growth suggest that there are many more to come. As the number of objects in space increases, so too does the probability of collision.
  3. At risk is more than the $279 billion-a-year satellite and launch industries and the jobs that depend on them.2 Satellites connect the most remote locations in the world to high-speed broadband. They help us navigate unfamiliar roads, broadcast video to millions of viewers, connect us to financial services, and provide imagery that can help us monitor climate change and other environmental problems. When disaster strikes, satellites help organize first responders, the government, and humanitarian organizations and make it possible to coordinate effective relief efforts. Left unchecked, orbital debris could block all of these benefits and reduce opportunities across nearly every sector of our economy.
  4. We believe strong compliance with post-mission disposal guidelines is an effective tool that can help stabilize the orbital debris environment. Currently, it is recommended that operators with objects in LEO ensure that their spacecraft are either removed from orbit immediately post-mission or left in an orbit that will decay and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within no more than 25 years to mitigate the creation of more orbital debris. However, we believe it is no longer sustainable to leave satellites in LEO to deorbit over decades. Accordingly, in this Second Report and Order, as part of our continued efforts to mitigate the generation of orbital debris, we shorten the 25-year benchmark for post-mission disposal of space stations3 in LEO to five years. The regulations we adopt today are designed to ensure that the Commission’s actions concerning radio communications, including licensing U.S. spacecraft and granting access to the U.S. market for non-U.S. spacecraft, promote the sustainable use of outer space without creating undue regulatory obstacles to new satellite ventures. This action by the Commission furthers the public interest in preserving viable options for future satellites and systems and the many services that those systems provide to the public.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.