Comments Due April 29, 2024 on FCC's New Rules to Govern In-Space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing

The FCC has proposed new rules to permit issuance of spectrum licenses to companies proposing operations in space other than deployment of traditional satellite space stations, including services such as assembly and manufacturing, as well as in-orbit satellite servicing. These operations may include rendezvous and proximity operations (“RPO”) such as docking, repairing, refueling, relocating and orbital debris removal for satellites in Earth orbit.

Defining In-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing

The FCC proposes to define an In-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing Space Station (“ISAM Space Station”) as a “space station which has the primary purpose of conducting in-space servicing, assembly, and/or manufacturing activities used on-orbit, on the surface of celestial bodies, and/or in transit between these regimes and which are supported by radiofrequency operations.” The definition further provides the following specifics:

    • Servicing activities “include but are not limited to in-space inspection, life extension, repair, refueling, alteration, and orbital transfer of a client space object, including collection and removal of debris on orbit.”
    • Assembly activities “involve the construction of space systems in space using pre-manufactured components.”
    • Manufacturing activities “involve the transformation of raw or recycled materials into components, products, or infrastructure in space.”

In its Notice, the FCC asks whether it should further define “primary purpose.” It inquires whether the term is either underinclusive or so broad that “it risks creating confusion as to whether more traditional space stations are included.”

Facilities meeting the definition could seek FCC approval through existing rules applicable to satellites under Part 25, or as experimental operations under Part 5, with some exemptions and specific additional requirements. Under Part 25, applicants, including petitioners for market-access, may seek approval under standard procedures or subject to the streamlined process for small satellites or small spacecraft, if the requirements of those rules are met. The FCC has determined in the first instance that ISAM communications may operate within several existing service allocations and therefore proposes to review ISAM operators’ frequency use requests on a case-by-case basis rather than making specific spectrum allocations for this purpose.

Proposed Differences from Current Space Station Licensing Requirements

    • Exemptions: Due to their shorter-term time horizon and specific mission characteristics, ISAM Space Stations would be exempt from certain requirements:
    • Conditional Exemption from Processing Rounds, provided that an applicant certifies that its operations “will be compatible with existing operations in the authorized frequency bands and submit[s] a narrative description to demonstrate spectrum sharing capabilities are technically possible, and that operations will not materially constrain future space station entrants from using the authorized frequency bands,” and “submits a narrative description of means by which the requested spectrum could be shared with both current and future operators (e.g., how ephemeris data will be shared, antenna design, earth station geographic locations).”
    • Limited Exemption from the Surety Bond Requirement, which would defer for one year the obligation to post a performance bond within 30 days post grant. This exemption is based on the recognition that many ISAM Space Station applicants will seek authority within a year before expected launch and the added assurance of a surety bond is not necessary in such instances.

Additions: ISAM Space Stations would need to provide additional information not required for current satellite networks:

For US licensees, a list of the FCC file numbers or call signs related to the proposed operations (for example, experimental license grants, other space station or earth station applications or grants). This is similar to existing requirements for small satellite networks, but would also include client space stations, space stations associated with debris the applicant seeks to remediate, and other space stations the applicant plans to interact with or collaborate with as part of its operations.

    • A list of the International Telecommunications Union filings and United Nations Registration information for any space stations not licensed or granted market access by the United States that are related to the proposed operations including, for example, the circumstances enumerated in the foregoing bullet. Applicants would also need to provide a narrative description of the regulatory requirements to which these related space stations are subject and their licensing status.

Proposed Application Components, Including Orbital Debris Mitigation Assessment

Applicants for ISAM authorization would also need to comply with the existing application requirements to submit a comprehensive proposal including all information required by FCC Form 312 and Schedule S, as outlined in Sections 25.114(a) through (c) of the FCC’s Rules, as well as the orbital debris mitigation assessment required under Section 25.114(d)(14), or in the streamlined rules for small satellites in Section 25.122(c) and (d) or Section 25.123(b) and (c). To the extent an applicant proposes RPO, it will need to disclose this fact and provide details of specific steps to be undertaken to avoid creation of orbital debris during such operations given their greater risk of accidental collision or debris release.

Comment Deadlines

Comments are due in this proceeding on Monday, April 29, 2024, and Reply Comments are due on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. If you are interested in supporting these FCC rule revisions or providing additional input on how to implement regulations governing these new space operations, please contact David Keir, Jeff Carlisle, or Steve Berman in our Satellite practice group.

Categories: Satellite