The US government has imposed its inaugural fine on a company for failing to manage space debris orbiting the Earth. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined Dish Network $150,000 (£125,000) for neglecting to move an outdated satellite a sufficient distance away from active satellites. The FCC's enforcement action centered on Dish Network's EchoStar-7 satellite, an aging space asset that posed a potential collision risk to other satellites in its orbital vicinity. EchoStar-7, initially launched in 2002, operated in geostationary orbit, positioned approximately 22,000 miles (36,000km) above the Earth's surface.
Dish Network was obligated to relocate the satellite 186 miles further from Earth, but by the time it reached the end of its operational life in 2022, it had only been moved 76 miles due to fuel depletion.
FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan Egal emphasized the importance of regulatory compliance in an era marked by increased satellite operations and a burgeoning space economy. He described the FCC's decision as a "breakthrough settlement," underlining the agency's robust enforcement authority concerning space debris regulations.
While the $150,000 fine represents a small fraction of Dish's total revenue, which stood at $16.7 billion in 2022, experts suggest that it could set a precedent for other satellite operators. Dr. Megan Argo, a senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire, noted that the FCC's use of regulatory powers for the first time would likely capture the attention of the industry, potentially influencing future behavior.
The growing population of space debris, consisting of defunct satellites and spacecraft components, is a significant concern. NASA estimates that more than 10,000 satellites have been launched into space since 1957, with over half of them now defunct. There are over 25,000 pieces of space debris measuring over 10cm long, posing risks to operational satellites and even human activities such as spacewalks. The prevalence of space junk has necessitated maneuvers like adjusting the International Space Station's orbit to avoid collisions.
Space debris mitigation is emerging as a critical aspect of space operations, highlighting the need for stringent regulations and enforcement to ensure the sustainability of activities in Earth's orbital environment.