The United States government has taken a historic step by imposing its inaugural penalty on a company responsible for leaving space debris circling our planet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has levied a fine for space junk worth $150,000 against Dish Network.
This action follows Dish Network’s failure to relocate one of its outdated satellites to a sufficient distance from those still in active service.
In response to the FCC’s decision, Dish Network has acknowledged its responsibility concerning the EchoStar-7 satellite and has committed to a “compliance plan” to rectify the space junk situation.
Space junk issued to Dish
Space junk consists of pieces of technology that orbit Earth but are no longer useful and can cause accidents.
This space debris includes items like outdated satellites and parts of spacecraft. According to the FCC, Dish’s satellite, at its current height, could potentially collide with other satellites in Earth’s orbit.
Dish’s EchoStar-7, initially launched in 2002, used to circle our planet in what’s known as a geostationary orbit, which begins at a distance of 22,000 miles (around 36,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.
Dish had a responsibility to shift the satellite 186 miles farther from Earth, but by the time it reached the end of its operational life in 2022, it had only managed to move 76 miles due to running out of fuel.
Loyaan Egal, head of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, emphasized, “As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments.”
She further added, “This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”
Significance of the fine imposed
While the $150,000 fine might seem small compared to Dish’s total earnings of $16.7 billion in 2022, its significance could resonate throughout the satellite industry, as noted by Dr. Megan Argo, a senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire.
Argo assumes that the use of regulatory powers for the first time by the FCC is likely to grab the attention of others in the industry.
She explained, “The fact that they’ve actually used their regulatory powers for the first time is certainly likely to at least make the rest of the industry sit up and pay attention.”
Moreover, she highlighted the potential repercussions of an increasingly crowded space environment. “The more things we have in orbit, the more risk there is of collisions, causing high-speed debris,” she said, adding that this could “go on and potentially hit other satellites, causing yet more debris and potentially cause a cascade reaction.”
Issue of space junk
Since the launch of the first satellite in 1957, it is estimated that over ten thousand satellites have been sent into space, and more than half of them are no longer operational.
Whoa. The FCC has issued a fine on space debris for the first time to a company that didn't deorbit its satellite properly.
It's a fine of $150,000 and "an admission of liability from the company". Could have fairly big implications for future space junk incidents? pic.twitter.com/tNz2oM1hQv
— Jonathan O’Callaghan (@Astro_Jonny) October 2, 2023
According to NASA, there are now over twenty-five thousand pieces of space debris that are larger than ten centimeters in length.
Bill Nelson, head of NASA, revealed in an interview that space junk poses a significant issue. This problem has forced the International Space Station to change its position to avoid collisions with these flying debris.
He emphasized the seriousness of the situation, saying that “even a paint chip…coming in the wrong direction at orbital speed, which is 17,500 miles an hour [could] hit an astronaut doing a spacewalk. That can be fatal.”