The United States government has issued its first-ever fine to a private company that left space debris in orbit. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Dish Network $150,000. The fine is for failing to properly dispose of one of its satellites, violating the FCC’s anti-space debris rule.
According to the U.S. FCC, failed satellites like Dish could also increase the risk of damage to satellite systems. They could interfere with the U.S. ground-based and space-based systems.
“This is a groundbreaking settlement that clearly demonstrates that the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capabilities to enforce its critically important space debris rules,” Loyaan A. Egal, director of the FCC’s Bureau of Enforcement, said in a press release.
Space debris is becoming an increasingly pressing issue for satellite operators. It is estimated that there are nearly 700,000 pieces of uncontrolled garbage larger than 0.4 inches (1 cm) in Earth’s orbit. The objects could pose a risk of colliding with active satellites, the International Space Station, or other pieces of debris. This could further increase the risk of more collisions in space. Until recently, the satellite industry had largely been left to self-regulate its compliance.
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Dish Network was fined for failing to deorbit its EchoStar-7 satellite. It was launched in 2002 and was explicitly exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit. The FCC said that Dish had agreed as part of a settlement to pay a $150,000 fine. The fine is for failing to thrust its satellite into a higher orbit. The FCC’s consent decree stated that “orbital debris in space jeopardizes the nation’s terrestrial and space-based communication systems by increasing the risk of damage to satellite communications systems”.
Dish responded in a statement. It said that the satellite at issue was “an older spacecraft that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit”. It also said that the FCC made no claims that the satellite “poses any orbital debris safety concerns”. Furthermore, the company claims it has a “long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee”.
The FCC’s decision to issue its first-ever space debris fine marks a significant step in the agency’s efforts to regulate satellite policy and mitigate the risks posed by space debris. As the number of satellites in orbit continues to grow, it is likely that the issue of space debris will become even more pressing, and the FCC’s actions may serve as a warning to other satellite operators to take their responsibilities seriously.