The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a new rule aimed at reducing the amount of new orbital debris from commercial space vehicles which would reduce the potential for collisions with spacecraft and satellites.

According to the FAA, the accumulation of orbital debris could increase the risk of collisions and clutter orbits used for human spaceflight and for satellites providing communications, weather and global positioning system services.

The proposed rule, which will be published in the coming days, would require commercial space operators to choose from among five options to dispose of the upper stages of launch vehicles.

These include:

  • Conduct a controlled re-entry;
  • Move the upper stage to a less congested storage or graveyard orbit;
  • Send the upper stage on an Earth-escape orbit;
  • Retrieve the upper stage (called active debris removal) within five years; or
  • Perform an uncontrolled atmospheric disposal.

According to the FAA, the number of orbital objects sized 10cm or greater is estimated to be over 23,000, as of July 2023. Recent debris projections estimate a total of one-half million objects sized between 1cm and 10cm on orbit, and over 100 million objects larger than 1mm.

By strictly limiting the uncontrolled re-entry of upper stages of launch vehicles, the FAA seeks to mitigate the risk to people on the ground and in flight due to its significant size and mass and the uncertainty of where it will land.

The proposed rule also would align commercial space orbital debris mitigation practices with those accepted by the US government for its space missions. A 90-day public comment period will begin after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

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