FCC Seeks Comments From Small Businesses on Proposed Satellite Regulations

There are more than 170 million pieces of debris in space. This debris has accumulated over years and years of launching hundreds of satellites into orbit; the same satellites that allow us to rely on GPS, Instagram all our travel photos, or even make this blog available to the masses. While there is almost a 0% chance any of this space debris will land in your front yard, or on your shoulder, it still poses a significant risk to other satellites in various orbits around earth.

To stem the growth of space debris, the Federal Communications Commission recently released a proposed rule, 84 FR 4742, that significantly changes how satellite launches are both planned and tracked. Unfortunately, these changes will likely drive up costs of accessing space, making small business participation even more challenging than it already is.

Has anyone else spotted the elephant in the room? Why do small businesses care about rules governing satellite launches and operations? With total manufacturing and launch costs as low as $135,000 and more than a 100% increase in small businesses operating under the qualified NAICS codes in the last few years, more and more small businesses will be affected by this proposed rule.

Let us take a closer look at how can small businesses afford to send satellites into space, and why should they care about 84 FR 4742? When we think of satellites, I bet that the first thing you think of is either the Hubble Space Telescope, which cost an estimated $1.5 billion to manufacture, or global position system (GPS) satellites, which cost an estimated $575 million. When we think of launching satellites into space we think of NASA’s iconic space shuttle, which cost an estimated $450 million for each launch.

I want you to take those cost estimates and throw them out the window. Satellites and launches are exponentially cheaper than those anchors of the space industry. Cubesats, satellites typically measuring 10cm x 10cm x 10cm and capable of a wide array of commercially viable activities, can be manufactured for around $50,000, or even lower if you are building from a kitSpaceflight is a multi-service provider that focuses on integrating and managing satellite payload launches.

A cubesat launched through Spaceflight can be placed in low-earth-orbit for as little as $295,000. A cubesat launched through Rocket Lab, another launch provider, can be placed in low-earth-orbit for as little as $85,000. All told, manufacturing and launching a single cubesat could cost only $135,000 total, maybe even less. While this is by no means a guaranteed rate, the number of small businesses capable of affording this size of investment continues to grow as the industry matures and costs continue to drop.

84 FR 4742 cites figures from 2007 in estimating the number of small businesses operating under NAICS codes 517410 and 517919. 2007 Census Bureau data shows 482 and 2,346 small firm participants in these NAICS codes, respectively. As of February 21, 2019, 1,130 small businesses were registered in SAM under NAICS code 417410. This represents a 134% increase from 2007. As of February 21, 2019, 3,028 small businesses were registered in SAM under NAICS code 517919. This represents a 29% increase from 2007. Given the recent advances in spaceflight technologies and associated reductions in costs, I believe that these increases do not reflect the true growth rate to come.

Even if your small business is not capable of manufacturing a satellite and procuring the necessary launch, there are a number of other mechanisms by which small businesses are involved in the satellite industry. NASA’s Office of Small Business Programs forecasts more than $1 billion in small business spending for both prime and subcontracts in Fiscal Year 2018.

This fact is mirrored, and expanded on, in a recent GAO report stating that “NASA plans to invest billions in the coming years[.]” NASA even publishes an annual Small Business Innovation Research (“SBIR”) and Small Business Technology Transfer (“STTR”) project list. While all projects on this list are directly linked to space activities, two are of particular interest when evaluating 84 FR 4742, for reasons stated below. They are the Small Launch Vehicle Technologies and Demonstrations project and the Guidance, Navigation and Control project.

Now that we realize small businesses really do participate in the satellite industry and that this participation rate is growing exponentially, why should small businesses care about 84 FR 4742?

On February 19, 2019, the FCC released 84 FR 4742, Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age. This proposed rule is meant to update the 2004 Orbital Debris Order based on trends in the satellite and launch industries. The FCC recognizes that the two primary NAICS codes at issue are 517410 (Satellite Telecommunications) and 517919 (All Other Telecommunications). Both of these NAICS codes carry $32.5 million size standards. The comment period for 84 FR 4742 closes April 5, 2019.

The proposed rule seeks to provide clarity to existing regulations. While I am not an engineer in any sense of the word, I believe this “clarity” will correlate to potentially significant increased costs. 84 FR 4742 seeks comment on a number of items, but two are the central focus due to their associated cost implications. First, the control of debris released during normal operations. Second, the registration, and monitoring, of safe flight profiles.

As it relates to the control of orbital debris, a quick synopsis of what a typical launch vehicle is needed. Most launch vehicles today contain four main components: (1) the first stage, (2) the second stage, (3) the fairings, and (4) the payload. Generally, the first stage always ends up back on earth. Although companies like SpaceX have shown that first stage landing and reusability is economically feasible, they are the only ones to use this functionality at the present time. The second stage, fairings, and payload almost never return to earth. A circuitous path through definitions found in 84 FR 4742 and 47 CFR § 25.103 appear to indicate that the control of debris detailed in 84 FR 4742 is only concerned about unused portions of the payload.

Of specific concern are payloads such as those facilitated by rideshare companies like Spaceflight and Rocket Lab. The payload for these companies consists of a rideshare device to which companies attach their respective satellites. Once those satellites disconnect from the rideshare device, the device becomes debris.

Under the proposed rule, companies must justify their use of such rideshare devices and incorporate a detailed debris mitigation plan. While Spaceflight and Rocket Lab, among other launch providers, utilize the standard launch vehicle for today’s launches, the previously mentioned “Small Launch Vehicle Technologies and Demonstrations” project will likely bring new launch methods into the fray.

Throughout the proposed rule there is scattered discussion of what this mitigation plan must look like, both for satellites and their rideshare devices. Various options proposed include atmospheric re-entry (read “burn it up in the atmosphere”), direct retrieval, or parking the debris in an orbit that is outside ones used by operational satellites or an orbit that will lead to eventual atmospheric re-entry. Each of these carries its own concerns, which we will address after touching on the second central focus; safe flight profiles.

Safe flight profiles are surprisingly intuitive compared to government regulations as a whole. The FCC wants to ensure that operators of satellites, and associated debris, know where the satellite is going and how its path may impact other satellites or debris already in orbit.

This is one of the areas NASA is already looking for small businesses to contribute, as found through prior reference to the “Guidance, Navigation and Control” project. The proposed rule outlines the already established collision probabilities of .01 and .001% for operational and de-orbit maneuvers. While these collision parameters exist already, I believe their impact, in conjunction with the proposed safe flight profile rules, will have a ripple effect across the industry.

The first ripple comes from the FCC relying on old data for its forecasting. As already stated, the FCC is using Census data from 2007 to estimate how many small businesses may be impacted by this rule. Most of the increase in small business participants that we discussed earlier came about before companies like Spaceflight and Rocket Lab were still trying to establish validity. Now that both of those companies are fully operational, I expect exponential growth in this industry. With each new satellite comes increased factors to evaluate when determining a safe flight profile.

The second ripple comes as the FCC acknowledges there may need to be different standards from individual satellites as compared to satellite constellations. However, the definition of “satellite constellation” is about to drastically change. Today, ESA’s Galileo constellation consists of 26 satellites. However, there are companies, like OneWeb estimates that it will have between 648 and 2,000 satellites in its constellation. Presently, the FCC is not differentiating between constellations of various sizes.

While I am sure there are other “ripples” out there, these two cause the most concern. With each new satellite placed into orbit, those satellites, and their rideshare devices, are going to have greater and greater collision risks.

To show compliance with the established collision probabilities, companies are going to have to spend more time and money on engineering efforts and maneuverability capabilities to ensure collisions are avoided. This will inevitably lead to higher capex and opex costs for satellite companies, large and small, and their launch providers. Tying into the first major concern, satellite companies and their launch providers also have to add capabilities to address any de-orbiting or debris mitigation plan.

In the fall of 2017, the President recommissioned the National Space Council. In 2018, Spaceflight facilitated a rideshare on a SpaceX booster that carried 15 microsats and 49 cubesats, more than half of which were operated by commercial entities. Satellite revenue forecasts are increasing while forecasted production and launch costs are rapidly falling. The environment for small businesses to enter and thrive in the fields falling under NAICS codes 517410 and 517919 is ripe for expansion. The FCC, however, appears to be creating regulations based on decades-old data.

In the midst of this, the FCC is looking for comments on several proposed regulatory changes that could have a ripple effect across the small business satellite community. Comments are due by April 5, 2019. We encourage you to make your voice heard on this matter.