Key Points

  • The FCC released its draft version of a NPRM regarding a licensing framework for ISAM capabilities. The item is tentatively scheduled to be voted on at the FCC's Open Commission meeting on February 15.
  • The NPRM proposes changes to the Commission's rules, which include defining what constitutes an ISAM space station, creating a framework for ISAM space station operators to pursue FCC licensing under Part 25 of the Commission's rules, and clarifying how the FCC's space station license requirements such as orbital debris mitigation could apply to ISAM operators.


The space industry is rapidly innovating and accelerating its ability to conduct economic activity in space. Part of this effort involves companies investing in In-Space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities, which include on-orbit activities like satellite refueling, orbital relocation, removing orbital debris, and performing spacecraft inspections and repairs. Such activities often involve rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO)—in which the ISAM spacecraft maneuvers and operates in the near vicinity of its 'client' spacecraft. Enabling these emerging in-space activities requires reliable use of radiofrequency communications, the licensing and regulation of which falls to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or the Commission). As a result, the FCC initiated the Facilitating Capabilities for ISAM proceeding with a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) in August 2022, seeking comment on the state of the ISAM industry, opportunities for the Commission to support the development and deployment of ISAM operations, and economic and societal benefits from ISAM capabilities.

After reviewing the record in response to the NOI, the Commission now proposes a framework for licensing ISAM space stations and operations. To date, the Commission has authorized these novel space activities through its existing licensing processes, both through traditional Part 25 licenses similar to those issued to communications and other satellite operators and through the FCC's Part 5 experimental licensing procedures. If the proposal is adopted by the FCC on February 15, it will initiate a rulemaking intended to "foster innovation and growth" in the ISAM industry.

Definition of ISAM Space Station

The draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes to establish a definition of "ISAM space station," which draws from the White House National ISAM Strategy. The proposed definition, which would be added to section 25.103 of the FCC's rules, provides that "ISAM space station" means:

"A space station which has the primary purpose of conducting in-space servicing, assembly, and/or manufacturing activities used on-orbit, on the surface of celestial bodies, and/or in transit between these regimes and which are supported by radiofrequency operations. Servicing activities include but are not limited to in-space inspection, life-extension, repair, refueling, alteration, and orbital transfer of a client space object, including collection and removal of debris on orbit. Assembly activities involve the construction of space systems in space using pre-manufactured components. Manufacturing activities involve the transformation of raw or recycled materials into components, products, or infrastructure in space."

The Commission seeks comments on this definition, including whether to further clarify the meaning of the term "primary purpose" or whether the definition is too broad.

New Part 25 Framework and Requirements - § 25.126

The draft acknowledges that the unique nature of ISAM capabilities may require different forms of regulation to account for the varied characteristics of distinct ISAM operational profiles. In its proposal, however, the FCC declines to create separate regulatory paths for various, discrete ISAM activities, instead opting to propose a single new framework that applies broadly to "ISAM space station" operations. The draft NPRM characterizes this approach as consistent with the nascent nature of the ISAM industry, allowing licensing processes to grow and iterate alongside innovation in the industry.

If adopted, the proposed framework will apply to applicants that satisfy the definition of "ISAM space station." The section will require a comprehensive proposal for Commission evaluation, consistent with the FCC's existing satellite licensing requirements. It also outlines proposed exemptions for ISAM space stations from the Commission's processing round rules for non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) space stations and from the first-come-first-served process for geostationary orbit (GSO) space stations. This would require the ISAM applicant to submit a certification and narrative description demonstrating that operations will be compatible with existing operations in the requested frequency bands and not materially constrain future space station entrants from using the relevant frequency band. The FCC's rationale for this is to acknowledge the range of ISAM spectrum sharing capabilities, thereby allowing flexibility of ISAM spectrum use while protecting incumbent and future satellite operators from ISAM-related interference.

The proposal also includes requirements for ISAM applicants to provide information for all space stations to be serviced by the ISAM station, whether licensed by the FCC or a foreign administration. The draft NPRM states that this information is relevant to the FCC for purposes of determining whether the client space station requires a modification to its existing authorization, and to assess U.S.-licensed space station interactions with non-U.S. client space stations.

The draft additionally proposes deferment of the posting of surety bonds for one year after ISAM operators are granted a license.

In addition, the draft provides that the FCC will continue to leverage existing Part 5 experimental space station licensing for appropriate circumstances as ISAM technology develops, and ISAM space station operators may also apply under existing small satellite and small spacecraft licensing processes if applicable to their specific circumstance.

Frequency Allocations

In the draft NPRM, the Commission declines to propose specific frequency allocations for ISAM use. The proposal instead provides that the Commission would review ISAM operator requests to use particular frequencies on a case-by-case basis as the various communication activities associated with distinct types of ISAM operations could leverage several existing service allocations. Most ISAM operations will require the use of telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) operations, but commenters suggested that TT&C allocations will not be sufficient to cover all aspects of ISAM operations. Rather, they indicated that ISAM frequency use must be "agile" to ensure communication with client satellites or to prevent interference with nearby space stations. The draft NPRM provides that the Commission's goal in declining to propose a specific frequency allocation is to encourage creativity and innovation for ISAM operators using the spectrum ecosystem, thus using a case-by-case review of proposed spectrum usage to enable prospective operators to tailor their applications to their particular use cases and needs.

Moreover, the draft NPRM observes that although existing allocations such as the Space Operation Service could be useful to ISAM operators, several are already highly utilized by federal users. Many ISAM operations also do not fit cleanly within existing service definitions, and therefore, the FCC proposes not to limit ISAM operations to specified service allocations as long as the requested ISAM operations fit into the service allocation definition that is requested by the applicant for their specific operations. In addressing frequency "piggybacking" with the client satellite—a practice in which the ISAM space station relies on, and coordinates its operations to avoid interference to, the authorized frequencies of the client space station—as an option, the FCC proposes that "piggybacking" may only be applicable for certain ISAM space stations that have the requisite communication capabilities to match the operational frequencies of client satellites and is therefore not viable as a standard solution for authorizing ISAM licenses.

Orbital Debris, Planetary Protection and License Modifications

The draft NPRM proposes to maintain existing Commission requirements for orbital debris mitigation, which will be reviewed alongside the ISAM space station applications on a case-by-case basis to ensure compliance. It also declines to include an independent Commission review of an applicant's planetary protection policies in the proposed licensing framework in order to avoid hindering other agencies' efforts to develop planetary protection policies. Instead, the draft NPRM proposes to continue ensuring that ISAM space station applicants work with NASA and other relevant agencies to ensure compliance with applicable planetary protection guidance.

Responding to arguments filed in response to the NOI that client space stations being serviced should not have to obtain a license modification unless the client would require the use of new or unlicensed frequencies due to the servicing, the draft NPRM does not propose any change on this front, instead proposing that the FCC review these limited instances on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a modification is needed.


The issuance of the draft NPRM further illustrates the FCC's ongoing interest, consistent with the National ISAM Strategy and the U.S. National Space Policy, in supporting space innovation and providing a streamlined framework for licensing novel ISAM operations. Prospective ISAM operators and clients alike, along with existing and traditional users of spectrum, will benefit from increased clarity and certainty in the ISAM operating rules and licensing process and should therefore carefully consider whether and how best to participate in this proceeding. If adopted at the FCC's February 15, 2024 Open Meeting, the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register, which in turn will set the deadlines for the submission of comments and reply comments.

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