FAA Proposes Upper Stage Disposal Rule To Limit Space Debris

FAA Proposes Upper Stage Disposal Rule To Limit Space Debris

The FAA is proposing a new rule requiring commercial space companies to dispose of their rocket upper stages to limit the creation of more space debris. Five disposal methods are allowed: a controlled or uncontrolled deorbit within certain time limits, putting the stage into a less congested orbit or sending it into an Earth-escape orbit, or retrieving it. A 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

The vast majority of rockets have at least two stages and sometimes three or four.  The first stage powers the rocket most of the way to orbit then separates from the other stages and splashes down in an unoccupied part of the ocean. The other stages, generically called upper stages because they are on top of the first stage, go into orbit along with the payload.

Unless these upper stages are deliberately deorbited they remain in space, part of the growing amount of flotsam known as space debris.

The FAA regulates commercial space launches and reentries. Its new proposed rule would require commercial space operators to dispose of those upper stages in one of five manners:

  • Within 30 days of mission completion —
    • conduct a controlled reentry,
    • maneuver the stage into a less congested or “graveyard” disposal orbit, or
    • send it further into space where it will not return (an Earth-escape orbit)
  • Within 5 years of mission completion, retrieve it (Active Debris Removal), or
  • Within 25 years of mission completion, assure it will make an uncontrolled reentry (with most or all of it burning up due to atmospheric forces) rather than remaining in orbit indefinitely
Source: FAA proposed rule on upper stage disposal (Docket No.: FAA-2023-1858; Notice No. 23-13)

The FAA’s press release says there are more than 23,000 objects in space 10 centimeters or more in size, although U.S. Space Command puts that number much higher at over 44,000. Millions of smaller pieces that cannot be tracked are also floating around in orbit.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation, tells SpacePolicyOnline.com that the proposed rule appears to implement the updated U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices issued in 2019. He considers them a “modest update” that “don’t go nearly as far as some other countries” like France. Nonetheless “they’re still a step in the right direction.”

The FAA’s proposed rule for upper stages comes one year after the FCC established a rule that requires satellite operators to deorbit their satellites within 5 years of mission completion if they are in low Earth orbit (below 2,000 kilometers).

Space debris is a growing threat to civil, commercial and national security space operations around the globe. Weeden and others are participating in the annual AMOS conference in Maui, Hawaii this week to discuss space debris and Space Situational Awareness (SSA), or Space Domain Awareness (SDA) as the military now calls it — knowing what’s in orbit and keeping track of where it is and where it’s going.

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