The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued its first-ever space debris enforcement action, imposing a fine of $150,000 on Dish for failing to properly deorbit a TV satellite. Dish has admitted to the violation, agreed to implement a compliance plan, and will pay the civil penalty. The FCC’s increased focus on satellite policy, including the establishment of a Space Bureau, led to this action.
The FCC discovered that Dish violated the Communications Act, FCC rules, and the terms of its license by relocating the EchoStar-7 satellite to a disposal orbit that was below the required elevation. This lower altitude presented concerns regarding orbital debris. The consent decree reached by Dish and the FCC is considered a breakthrough settlement, demonstrating the FCC’s enforcement authority to regulate space debris rules effectively.
Dish launched the EchoStar-7 satellite in 2002, and its orbital debris mitigation plan was approved by the FCC in 2012. In February 2022, Dish realized that the satellite was running low on propellant and alerted the Commission about potential problems with executing the end-of-life disposal plan. In May 2022, Dish informed the FCC that it had completed the deorbit maneuvers and surrendered the license for the satellite. However, the satellite was placed in a disposal orbit below the specified altitude.
To ensure compliance, Dish will need to improve the accuracy of propellant tracking and report progress to the FCC. Additionally, the company will have to enhance end-of-mission disposal planning and submit compliance reports for three years.
It is important to note that while this fine relates to a geostationary satellite, the surge in satellite launches is predominantly happening in low-Earth orbits (LEO). In LEO, satellite disposal is handled differently, with satellites burning up upon reentry or performing collision-avoidance maneuvers while operational to avoid collisions and minimize space debris.