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06 December 2023

US government issues first-ever space debris penalty to Dish Network


The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued its first fine to a company that violated its anti-space debris rule, the commission announced on Monday.

Dish Network has to pay $150,000 to the commission over its failure to deorbit its EchoStar-7 satellite, which has been in space for more than two decades. Instead of properly deorbiting the satellite, Dish sent it into a “disposal orbit” at an altitude low enough to pose an orbital debris risk.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” said Loyaan A Egal, the FCC’s enforcement bureau chief, in the statement announcing the Dish settlement. “This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

In 2002, Dish launched the satellite into geostationary orbit – a field of space that begins 22,000 miles (36,000km) above Earth. It agreed in 2012 to an orbital debris mitigation plan that, upon completion of EchoStar-7’s mission, would send the the satellite 186 miles (300km) above where it was stationed, into a “graveyard orbit” where it would not be a risk to other active satellites.

But in 2022, Dish realized that the satellite was low on propellant, and would not have enough to move to its intended destination. Instead, the satellite ended up only 76 miles (122 km) above the active geostationary orbit areas – 178 km off its mark.

Space debris, broadly defined by the FCC as artificial objects orbiting Earth that are not functional spacecraft, has been a growing concern for the agency. It says that the more old material that stays in orbit, the harder it is for incoming satellites to start and complete new missions. In 2022, the FCC adopted a rule that would require satellite operators to dispose of their satellites within five years of mission completion.

“Right now there are thousands of metric tons of orbital debris in the air above – and it is going to grow,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a 2022 statement that accompanied the announcement of the rule. “We need to address it. Because if we don’t, this space junk could constrain new opportunities.”