Dish Network, the US owner of direct-broadcast satellite provider Dish, has been fined $150,000 by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for failing to properly clear its space debris. The FCC found that Dish did not adhere to the required regulations when it directed its EchoStar-7 satellite into a low “disposal orbit” after it was decommissioned. This disposal orbit was much lower than the specified orbit stated in Dish’s license, which could have posed threats of orbital debris.
Regulators have introduced debris rules in recent years to tackle the increasing number of large and startup companies launching satellites into high and low-Earth orbits. The aim is to limit the risk associated with new launches.
FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A Egal emphasized the importance of ensuring that operators comply with their commitments, especially as satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates. The enforcement of these space debris rules by the FCC sets a precedent and demonstrates the agency’s authority and capability in this arena.
Dish had its “orbital debris mitigation plan” approved in 2012, which outlined the company’s commitment to bringing the satellite to an altitude of 300km above its operational geostationary arc at the end of its mission. However, in May 2022, Dish determined that the satellite did not have enough propellant to follow the original plan. Consequently, the satellite was retired at a disposal orbit approximately 122km above the geostationary arc, well below the required 300km specified in the debris mitigation plan.
In response to such incidents, the FCC implemented new rules last year, shortening the time frame for satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites. Operators must now clear the satellites within five years of completing their missions, as opposed to the previous guideline of 25 years.