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Comments to FAA on Proposed Rule to Limit Orbital Debris

In September 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed a regulation that would require commercial space operators to limit or dispose of their launches’ orbital debris within 25 years. The standards would help preserve the continued usefulness of Earth’s orbits and prevent serious hazards posed to on-orbit missions. It would also contribute to the American commercial space industry’s continued viability.

While the Proposed Rule and its accompanying regulatory impact analysis reasonably explain why orbital debris is a problem and why regulation will help address it, we explain in our comment letter that FAA should take further steps to bolster its analysis. In particular, our letter explains that:

  • FAA should reconsider its proposed decision not to adopt more stringent standards. In rejecting such standards, FAA fails to account for uncertainty in operators’ debris mitigation plans, unmitigated damage caused by debris objects smaller than five millimeters, and the additional benefits that more stringent standards would offer. Its justifications are largely based on harmonization with international or U.S. government standards, but such harmonization, while important, should not be treated as determinative. Instead, in line with longstanding executive orders, FAA should more robustly assess whether the additional benefits of more stringent standards—such as requiring mitigation more quickly than 25 years, allowing fewer than 100 object-years of debris per launch, or requiring mitigation of more than the debris expected from a particular launch—might justify their higher costs.
  • While FAA’s conclusion that the Proposed Rule’s benefits likely justify its costs is well grounded, FAA should conduct a more robust benefits analysis. Specifically, FAA should conduct a breakeven analysis and include a more detailed description of the Proposed Rule’s  unquantified benefits. FAA should also include more discussion of the Proposed Rule’s potential to (i) encourage international reciprocity, (ii) provide benefits worldwide, and (iii) promote national security. 
  • FAA should analyze the Proposed Rule’s likely effects on competition.