The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a “breakthrough” first-ever fine over space debris, imposing a penalty of $150,000 on a TV company, Dish, for their failure to properly dispose of a satellite. This landmark decision marks a significant step forward in the FCC’s efforts to address satellite policies and enforce space debris regulations.
EchoStar-7, a geostationary satellite that has been in orbit since 2002, became the center of this enforcement action. As the satellite reached the end of its operational life, Dish relocated it to a lower altitude than what had been agreed upon. The FCC expressed concerns over this move, as it could potentially contribute to the accumulation of orbital debris, posing risks to other satellites and human spaceflight.
Dish had initially made a commitment in 2012 to raise the satellite to an altitude of 300 kilometers, well above its operational arc. However, due to dwindling fuel reserves, the company retired the satellite at a higher altitude of just over 120 kilometers. The FCC deemed this action to be a violation of Dish’s commitments and a disregard for the importance of proper disposal practices.
Enforcement and Liability
In response to Dish’s failure to comply with the agreed-upon disposal requirements, the FCC imposed a penalty of $150,000. The settlement includes an admission of liability from Dish and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan. The FCC intends to enforce its space debris rules rigorously, emphasizing the importance of satellite operators fulfilling their commitments.
While the FCC has taken a strong stance on holding Dish accountable for its negligence, the company issued a statement to counter the FCC’s claims. Dish argued that the FCC’s enforcement arm did not provide any concrete evidence of orbital debris safety concerns regarding EchoStar-7. A Dish spokesperson highlighted their long track record of safely managing a fleet of satellites and their commitment to fulfilling their responsibilities as an FCC licensee.
The recent announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to reduce space debris further underscores the importance of enforcing regulations on satellite operators. The FAA intends to require private companies to dispose of upper stages of rocket launch vehicles, either by returning them to Earth’s atmosphere or moving them to less congested “graveyard orbits.”
With an estimated one million pieces of debris larger than a centimeter orbiting the Earth, it is evident that space debris poses significant risks. Collisions between satellites and debris not only endanger spaceflights but also threaten critical services such as GPS, broadband, and banking data. The European Space Agency has already reported incidents like a near-miss involving a Chinese satellite and damage to the International Space Station caused by debris.
The mounting risks associated with space debris necessitate the implementation of stringent regulations and enforcement mechanisms. The FCC’s enforcement action against Dish represents a significant step towards ensuring that satellite operators comply with their commitments and prioritize the safe disposal of their equipment.
As satellite operations become increasingly prevalent and the space economy accelerates, it is crucial to mitigate the risks posed by orbital debris. The FCC’s message is clear: operators and licensees must understand and adhere to space debris rules to safeguard the future of space exploration and protect vital services here on Earth.