As more rockets liftoff into the skies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is trying to control how long those launch vehicles stay in orbit as floating space junk.
On Wednesday, the FAA proposed a new rule that would require private space companies to dispose of their upper stages after launch to mitigate the growing issue of orbital debris.
As rockets launch to orbit, their upper stages burn up in the atmosphere, fall back to Earth, or join thousands of discarded fragments that form a cloud of orbital debris around our planet.
The proposed rule suggests five disposal options for companies with FAA commercial launch licenses to choose from. Those options include carrying out a controlled reentry of the upper stage, moving it to a less congested orbit (also known as a graveyard orbit), sending it farther out into space on an Earth-escape trajectory, retrieving the upper stage within five years, or performing an uncontrolled atmospheric disposal where it burns up upon reentry.
“By strictly limiting the uncontrolled reentry of upper stages, the FAA seeks to mitigate the risk to people on the ground and in flight due to its significant size and mass and the uncertainty of where it will land,” the FAA wrote.
The proposed rule would also align the orbital debris mitigation practices of commercial space launches with those already adopted by the U.S. government for its space missions, according to the FAA.
A growing space industry has resulted in increased access to Earth orbit and an increasing amount of orbital junk. There are currently 34,580 debris objects being tracked by the Space Surveillance Networks with thousands of smaller pieces floating around, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register in the coming days, after which a 90-day public comment period will begin. There are other orbital debris mitigation efforts currently in the works such as the ClearSpace-1 mission, a giant claw that’s designed to grab onto pieces of space junk and toss them to a fiery death through Earth’s atmosphere. The mission’s first target, however, was struck by another piece of space junk so its fate currently hangs in the balance.