Don’t Get a Parking Ticket in Space

Erin Beaudoin

Tech & Science Writer

March 15, 2024

TABLE OF CONTENTS

As humanity’s reach into the cosmos extends, so too does governance. The orbits above Earth’s atmosphere are now bustling with satellites, space stations, and parts of broken spacecraft. With this expansion comes a pressing concern: orbital debris. This issue, similar to environmental concerns on Earth, requires urgent and efficient regulation. The US regulatory agencies, specifically the FCC and FAA, recently instituted de-orbiting laws for US companies. But what does this mean for space companies?

Rules of the void

Launch providers are now required by the FAA to dispose of their upper stages by deorbiting, retrieving, or sending them to a “graveyard orbit” that lies almost 200 miles further from Earth than the furthest active satellites. Additionally, companies with satellites must formulate end-of-life plans and follow them diligently. This includes deorbiting, retrieval, or placing satellites in graveyard orbits once they reach the end of their operational life. 

There’s also a proposed rule for comprehensive reports on collision risk for entire constellations, not just individual satellites. Additionally, satellites must be equipped with propulsion systems for maneuverability and end-of-life disposal.

Parking tickets in space

Recently, the FCC issued a $150,000 “parking ticket” to Dish, penalizing them for failing to adhere to their deorbit plan. Although $150,000 is a low cost in the realm of satellite financing, this tangible enforcement marks a new era—the penalties for technical malfunctions will only grow steeper. Accidents such as demo mission loss and rocket body explosions will cost companies not only in materials but also in fees. 

Approximately 70% of objects in LEO are space debris, highlighting the urgency of effective regulation. While space laws and regulations may initially seem burdensome as an extra hurdle to jump into orbit, they ultimately benefit everyone involved. With improved testing procedures and enhanced cross-team communication, companies can navigate regulatory requirements more smoothly, minimizing the risk of mission failure.

The stakes

The consequences of losing control of a spacecraft have escalated. Now, in addition to the loss of time and resources invested in their projects, companies face government action. Although the FAA promises to start with a “light touch” on novel space regulations, as penalties and regulations steepen and solidify, the margin for error grows less and less. In this new environment, space companies need to upgrade their manufacturing processes from spreadsheets to something more robust to keep track of all the information they need to obtain licenses and avoid costly accidents.

Leave a trace

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is the entity that authorizes launch and reentry operations, the operation of launch and reentry sites, and issues safety element approvals. Before applying for a permit, the FAA requires that companies consult with them. Early consultation (at the planning stage of a mission) can help identify issues that could prevent license approval later on. Next, they evaluate the mission’s national security and public safety, the company’s financial responsibility, the environmental impact of the mission, and the tech’s capability to adhere to the mission proposed.

The FAA requires the following information for a payload on board a launch vehicle:

  • Payload name
  • Payload class
  • Physical dimensions and weight of the payload
  • Payload owner and operator, if different from the person requesting payload review
  • Orbital parameters for parking, transfer, and final orbits
  • Hazardous materials, and radioactive materials, and the amounts of each
  • Intended payload operations during the life of the payload
  • Delivery point in flight at which the payload will no longer be under the licensee’s control.


Finally, the FAA monitors compliance: during the mission, you must collect and report data.

When obtaining launch and operation licenses, communicating between teams to hold a single source of truth for design, specs, manufacturing, and testing is key. The list above requires information from astrodynamics engineers, subsystem providers, designers, manufacturers, and project managers.

The requirements may seem simple. However, in practice, small items quickly compound into highly complicated and difficult-to-track lists of information, especially when integrating multiple complex payloads into a single bus. Rapidly scaling space companies struggle to keep their manufacturing practices in sync with their growing teams. This leads to disorganized documentation and a true nightmare for project managers or consultants to sort through during regulatory processes. 

Talk amongst yourselves

Modern cloud-based Project Lifecycle Management (PLM) software offers a solution by providing an audit trail and traceability for all revisions, components, and changes. This streamlined approach facilitates regulatory review processes and simplifies the acquisition of launch and operation licenses.

Modern PLM’s traceability features can double benefit scaling companies by providing a means of effective communication and a “single source of truth” among engineering teams to mitigate the risk of mission failure. Companies can streamline their operations by providing engineers with access to the latest product information and past iterations. Open communication channels foster collaboration and innovation, ultimately enhancing the success rate of space missions.

Summary

Regulatory compliance doesn’t have to be a daunting task. By scaling your organization with good traceability practices, adhering to regulations becomes more manageable, increasing the chances of mission success. Ensuring traceability in engineering with open communication can help avoid the pitfalls of regulation, not to mention other benefits like more accurate timeline estimations, budgeting, and overall cost savings. In space, as on Earth, the key to success lies in adapting to change.

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