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New FCC Rules Cut Satellite Deorbit Timeline by 20-Years

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the space around Earth has grown increasingly cluttered. From spent rocket stages to pieces of satellites, as of May 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network was tracking over 27,000 pieces, a number that does not include things too small to be tracked. New objects launched into orbit are beginning to run out of space, and the threat posed by objects traveling 17,500 mph slamming into new satellites is increasing.

One of the most common types of satellite that has recently begun to be launched in large numbers are communications satellites. These satellites provide vital internet and communication capabilities globally. However, in an effort to try and limit the number of inoperable satellites in orbit, the U.S. FCC has adopted a policy requiring satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) below 1200 miles to be deorbited within five years following the end of their mission. This is a change from the previous 25-year limit.

Addressing the challenges posed by space debris has moved to the forefront for many organizations that operate satellites. Although all orbits will naturally decay until a satellite re-enters the atmosphere and burns up, some orbits are more stable than others and objects can remain above the atmosphere for decades without some sort of intervention. The process of deorbiting a satellite involves lowering its orbital altitude until it is low enough that atmospheric drag continues to reduce its speed and the satellite burns up.

As agencies like the FCC issue policies, the actual work of deorbiting inoperable satellites is left up to the spacecraft owners. To accomplish this task, many satellite operators are beginning to team with companies that provide deorbit services. The European Space Agency is looking into plans to capture and deorbit satellites, as are NASA and other space agencies around the world.

To be able to capture a satellite and transport it to a lower orbit will require the sorts of mechanical systems that Motiv Space Systems has been developing. Using the sort of technology being developed for NASA’s OSAM-1 mission, Motiv can provide organizations seeking to operate space deorbit spacecraft with the necessary hardware to capture satellites.

Since these missions are intended to be mostly, if not fully, autonomous, having robotic systems that can maneuver to grab a target satellite and pull it in will be necessary. Operating robotic systems in space is challenging, due to the harsh environment. At Motiv, the development of robotic and mechanical systems capable of performing these tasks in this environment is our entire business, and being able to contribute to addressing the challenges posed by the ever-growing quantity of debris in LEO is something we are ready for.

Space debris have been a reality since the Space Race, but it has only become a major problem very recently. With space agencies and other government entities encouraging or requiring satellite operators to remove their inoperable spacecraft from orbit sooner, one of the critical aspects of future space missions will be capturing and deorbiting satellites. The robotic and mechanical systems developed by Motiv could play a key role in making this goal, a reality.

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