The U.S. government has taken action against debris in outer space for the first time by issuing a penalty to a company that failed to bring an aging satellite to a safe orbit. Dish Network, a satellite television company, disposed of one of its satellites at an orbit below the required elevation specified in its license, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation. As a result, Dish Network has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine in a settlement with the FCC.
The settlement is regarded as a significant step in enforcing space debris rules and demonstrates the FCC’s enforcement authority and capability. Loyaan Egal, acting chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, emphasized the importance of ensuring that satellite operators comply with their commitments as satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates.
In addition to the monetary penalty, the settlement includes an admission of liability from Dish Network and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan. In 2002, Dish launched the satellite, EchoStar-7, into geostationary orbit. However, ten years later, Dish filed a plan to move the satellite to an orbit that would not pose a risk to active satellites. Despite the approved plan, Dish determined three months prior to the mission’s end that the satellite did not have sufficient propellant to follow the designated orbit. Consequently, Dish retired the satellite 178 kilometers away from the planned disposal orbit.
The FCC stated that Dish’s actions violated the Communications Act, FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license. Dish has contended that the satellite was exempted from the FCC’s minimum disposal orbit rule and that there were no specific findings indicating that the satellite posed orbital debris safety concerns.
The penalty comes at a time when the FCC is increasing its efforts to address the issue of space debris. The threat of collisions in outer space is a growing concern, as thousands of defunct human-made objects continue to orbit at high speeds. Space agencies estimate that there are over 34,000 pieces of debris capable of causing major damage if a collision were to occur. The FCC adopted a rule in 2022 requiring satellite operators to dispose of their satellites within five years of mission completion to combat this problem. The establishment of a Space Bureau by the FCC further signifies their dedication to enforcing regulations that minimize space debris and prevent interference in satellite operations.