US Government Issues First-Ever Space Debris Penalty

The International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

US FCC slaps Dish Network with first-ever space debris fine, after 20 year-old satellite fails to reach agreed ‘disposal orbit’

The US communications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), made history this week after issuing the “first space debris enforcement action.”

The FCC announced that its enforcement bureau had issued a fine of $150,000 against Dish Network, a Englewood, Colorado-based provider of television and direct-broadcast satellite services to rural locations.

Space debris and clutter has been a growing problem, as it can pose a serious risk to space travel, especially considering there are reportedly nearly 36,500 satellites and other objects orbiting the planet.

The International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
The International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

Space fine

To try and tackle the issue, the US has now issued the first-ever space debris fine after Dish Network admitted liability and agreed to adhere to a compliance plan and pay a penalty of $150,000.

Essentially Dish was found to have violated the US Communications Act, the FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license by failing to relocate its EchoStar-7 satellite to the agreed disposal orbit.

The satellite has been in space for more than two decades, having been launched into space in 2002, up to an altitude of 22,000 miles (36,000km) above Earth.

However the EchoStar-7 satellite came to its “end-of-mission”, and Dish sent it to a “disposal orbit” that was “well below the elevation required by the terms of its license.”

At this lower altitude, it could pose orbital debris concerns, the FCC noted.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” said enforcement bureau chief Loyaan A. Egal.

“This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules,” said Egal.

In 2012 Dish had agreed to bring the satellite when it was retired down to an altitude of 300 kilometres (186 miles) above its operational geostationary arc. Dish estimated that the satellite’s end-of-mission deorbit manoeuvrers would take place in May 2022.

But in February 2022, Dish determined that the satellite had very little propellant (i.e. fuel) left on board, which meant it could not follow the original orbital debris mitigation plan in its license.

Dish eventually retired the satellite at a disposal orbit approximately 122km (76 miles) above the geostationary arc, well short of the disposal orbit of 300 km specified in its orbital debris mitigation plan, the FCC noted.

Dish agreed to pay $150,000 for failing to properly dispose of satellite and violating the FCC’s anti-space debris rule.

In 2022, the FCC had adopted a rule that would require satellite operators to dispose of their satellites within five years of mission completion.

Crowded space

Dish is not the only organisation to land itself in trouble in outer space.

In November 2021 Russia was heavily criticised for blowing up a satellite in orbit, creating a dangerous debris cloud which can be lethal to astronauts when on a space walk.

And in December 2021 SpaceX and Elon Musk were also criticised, when China alleged that its space station had been forced to take evasive action so as to avoid collision with Starlink satellites.

And space debris can cause problems on the planet itself.

In November 2022 Spain was forced to briefly close its airspace due to a huge piece of a Chinese rocket falling to Earth, which resulted in hundreds of flight delays.

That large piece of the Long March 5B rocket was used to deliver the third module of China’s Tiangong space station, had re-entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner.

In August 2022 a landowner in Australia uncovered a surprise, after chunks of space debris from a SpaceX mission was found on his farm.

In 2021 a piece of a SpaceX rocket’s second stage – which powers the rocket after the lower first stage expends all its fuel – landed on a farm in Washington state in the US.