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Small Satellite Regulation in the U.S.: Balancing Innovation and Oversight


The rise of small , or , has transformed the by providing affordable access to space for a wide range of organizations and applications. These satellites, typically weighing less than 500 kilograms, have become increasingly popular due to their lower production and compared to traditional, larger satellites. However, this growth in small satellite deployment has also led to concerns about , space debris, and the need for regulation.

This article examines the current state of small satellite regulation in the U.S. and the challenges and opportunities facing this rapidly evolving sector.

Current Regulatory Framework

In the U.S., small satellites are primarily regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the Department of Commerce. The FCC is responsible for licensing and coordinating the use of radio frequencies, while the OSC oversees commercial satellite activities. Both agencies work in conjunction with other federal bodies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration () and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (), to ensure compliance with relevant regulations and policies.

Key Regulations and Policies

Licensing and Frequency Coordination

The FCC plays an important role in small satellite regulation by allocating and assigning radio frequencies, ensuring that satellite communications do not interfere with other essential services. Satellite operators are required to apply for a license and coordinate their frequency use with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an international organization responsible for global radio frequency management.

Orbital Debris Mitigation

The FCC works in conjunction with other agencies, such as the FAA and 810, to ensure that satellite operators follow guidelines to minimize the creation of orbital debris. These guidelines include safe disposal methods for decommissioned satellites and measures to prevent in-orbit collisions.

Remote Sensing Regulations

Small satellites used for and remote sensing are regulated by the OSC under the National and Programs Act (NCSPA). Operators are required to obtain a license from the OSC, which considers factors such as national security, foreign , and the protection of rights.

Export Controls

U.S. small satellite manufacturers and operators are subject to export control regulations, including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). These regulations are designed to control the export and re-export of defense-related technologies and dual-use items, ensuring that they do not fall into the hands of potential adversaries or unauthorized users.

Challenges in Small Satellite Regulation

Rapid Industry Growth

The fast-paced growth of the small satellite industry has presented significant challenges for regulators, who must keep up with technological advancements and the increasing number of satellites being launched. This growth has raised concerns about space traffic management, the potential for orbital debris, and the need for effective regulatory oversight.

Space Traffic Management

As the number of small satellites in orbit increases, the risk of collisions and the creation of additional space debris become more significant concerns. There is a growing need for a comprehensive, integrated approach to manage the increasing congestion in Earth's orbit.

International Coordination

With small satellites being launched by various countries and private entities, international coordination and cooperation are essential to ensure the safety and sustainability of the space environment. Developing globally harmonized regulations and policies, while respecting national interests, remains a significant challenge.

Opportunities for Improvement

Streamlining Licensing Processes

Regulatory agencies can work towards streamlining licensing processes and reducing the administrative burden on small satellite operators. This may involve adopting a risk-based approach, focusing on higher-risk activities while simplifying requirements for lower-risk operations.

A presidential policy directive was established in 2018 mandating departments to streamline regulations to support the growth of the commercial .

Developing a Comprehensive Space Traffic Management System

A centralized space traffic management (STM) system can provide real-time information on the location and trajectory of satellites, allowing operators to avoid potential collisions and minimize the risk of . This system would require collaboration among multiple government agencies, as well as international partners.

The Department of Commerce has responsibility for SSA/STM. They are tasked with establishing the services for the public good.

Encouraging International Cooperation

The U.S. can play a leading role in fostering international cooperation and developing globally harmonized regulations for small satellite operations. This may involve working with the ITU, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), and other relevant international organizations to establish best practices, guidelines, and standardized procedures that can be adopted by countries worldwide.

Promoting Technological Solutions

Regulators can encourage the development and adoption of innovative technologies that help mitigate the risks associated with small satellite deployment. These may include advanced propulsion systems for collision avoidance, satellite servicing capabilities, and the use of that minimize the creation of debris upon satellite re-entry or end-of-life.

The FCC is exploring the economic potential and policy questions related to servicing, assembly, and manufacturing taking place beyond the earth's atmosphere. They are examining the opportunities and challenges of space missions like satellite refueling, inspecting and repairing in-orbit , capturing and removing debris, and transforming materials through while in space. This is consistent with the Office of and Technology Policy's release of a ISAM National Strategy.

Enhancing Public-Private Partnerships

Public-private partnerships can play a significant role in addressing the challenges of small satellite regulation. By collaborating with industry stakeholders, regulators can better understand emerging technologies, industry trends, and the practical implications of new policies. This collaboration can help ensure that regulations strike the right balance between promoting innovation and ensuring the safety and sustainability of space activities.

Challenges and Opportunities for Regulators

The rapid growth of the small satellite industry presents both challenges and opportunities for regulators in the U.S. By streamlining licensing processes, developing a comprehensive space traffic management system, encouraging international cooperation, promoting technological solutions, and enhancing public-private partnerships, the U.S. can create a regulatory framework that supports the continued growth and innovation of the small satellite sector while ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities.



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