FCC cuts red tape on small satellite launches

The FCC is taking measures to make the launches of small satellites (but not large constellations) easier on the growing private space industry. The new licensing process should be simpler, easier and more likely to yield a green light from the agency.

Approved unanimously at today’s open FCC meeting, the new item essentially creates an express lane for anyone looking to launch fewer than 10 satellites weighing under 180 kilograms (about 400 pounds) each. There’s a new fee structure that should make it cheaper for these folks to apply, and should provide more certainty to them that their application will succeed.

This is an increasingly important segment of the satellite market, as startups, universities and aerospace companies send up experiments or prototypes on the growing number of cheap orbital launch services. It’s fundamentally different from the launch environment of the preceding few decades and the beginning of an entirely new market.

Many inside the new space industry have told me that regulation is one of their biggest worries, mainly because it’s complicated and time-consuming. A good regulator should know when to step in and when to get out of the way, and the FCC has clearly opted for the latter today.

Unanimous support is a rare thing when the agency so often divides down party lines on other proposals and rules. It’s not often you hear Commissioner Rosenworcel, who bitterly opposes many of Chairman Ajit Pai’s policies, enthuse about a rule, but in the statement accompanying her vote she says: “Count me as excited that the Chairman has brought this decision before us today. It has my full support.”

The Commissioners noted that this is only one small improvement among many that need to happen in order to better promote space activity in the country.

Stemming the growing problem of orbital debris is one thing, and part of the new satellite licensing process requires applicants to minimize the debris they create. That’s a start, but entirely new rules are in the works, as well.

Another, more FCC-native step to take is addressing the question of spectrum in space — that is, which slices of radio frequency should be assigned to orbital purposes, and what kind of restrictions should be placed on those purposes. With constellations of more than 10,000 satellites planned, the sky is going to get mighty noisy if we’re not careful.

For now, smaller organizations looking to make it to orbit will be breathing a sigh of relief that at least one part of the red tape has been yanked out from between them and their goal.

The rules as proposed last year before the comment period and revision can be found here, but the final rules should be on the FCC’s site soon.