There’s Finally a Plan to Clean Up All That Space Junk

A new FCC proposal would give satellite operators five years to de-orbit abandoned satellites after their useful life has ended.

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A graphic showing the number of objects orbiting the Earth.
Not much space.
Image: NASA (Getty Images)

Do you ever look up at the night sky and see something streak across the darkness? It’s not flashing, so it isn’t a plane. Could it be a shooting star? Quick, make a wish! Chances are, it’s one of the thousands of pieces of space junk stuck orbiting the Earth.

In total, there are currently more than 27,000 pieces of space junk floating around our planet. That’s roughly one piece of junk larger than 10 cm for every Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6 sold in the U.S. so far this year.

The sheer quantity of crap up there is now proving problematic — those abandoned, nonfunctional pieces of equipment pose a real risk of damaging the satellites we rely on every day. But now, Scientific American reports that lawmakers are starting to take action against the mounting pile of space junk.


According to SciAm, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a plan for removing all those defunct satellites from orbit:

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the first of several expected new rules meant to mitigate space junk. While only a small advancement for now, many experts are hopeful this could be the start of humanity finally sorting out the mess that’s been made in space.

On September 8 the FCC announced its new proposal to require operators to remove satellites from orbit within five years of the end of their purpose in orbit. Currently this limit is set at 25 years, but many have felt that time frame inadequately addresses the problem and needlessly increases the risk of debris-generating collisions that further exacerbate the space junk threat.

A photo of a satellite in orbit around the Earth.
There are more than 27,000 objects currently orbiting the Earth.
Photo: Hum Images/Universal Images Group (Getty Images)

According to Scientific American, this is a more meaningful development that it might sound at first.


By cutting the amount of time defunct satellites spend in space, the chance of a collision is dramatically reduced. This, in turn, can help reduce the amount of future debris — thousands of pieces of junk up there now were created by collisions between aging satellites.

The FCC doesn’t specify a method for how space junk should be brought back to Earth. Scientific American suggest this could be done using thrusters that push the detritus down into the earth’s atmosphere, where junk can be “deorbited” by aerodynamic drag in low orbits.


FCC commissioners are expected to approve the proposed rules by the end of September. If it does pass, the regulation will come into force within the next two years.

The new ruling covers all U.S.-registered satellites that are orbiting up to 1,200 miles above Earth.