Companies can now be penalized with fines for failing to mitigate the risks of potentially hazardous space debris falling from orbit, as a recent investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Enforcement Bureau has revealed.
On Monday, the FCC announced that its investigation into the failure of Dish Network to deorbit its EchoStar-7 satellite properly resulted in a settlement where the U.S. satellite television company paid a fine of $150,000.
“The FCC’s investigation found that the company violated the Communications Act, the FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license by relocating its direct broadcast satellite (“DBS”) service EchoStar-7 satellite at the satellite’s end-of-mission to a disposal orbit well below the elevation required by the terms of its license,” read a portion of a statement the FCC issued this week.
“At this lower altitude, it could pose orbital debris concerns,” the statement read.
The EchoStar-7 satellite was launched in 2002, and although an orbital debris mitigation plan was later filed by Dish Network and approved by the FCC a decade after the satellite went into orbit, the plan detailed that the satellite would end its time in service at an altitude of 300 km above its operational geostationary arc.
In February 2022, the satellite was determined to have spent most of its propellant, slightly ahead of its expected end-of-mission deorbiting, which had been set for May 2022. The company chose to retire the satellite at a disposal orbit close to 180 km below the altitude outlined in the orbital debris mitigation plan included in its license.
The FCC’s move to enforce penalties against a major communications company for non-compliance represents a first for the agency in its efforts to strengthen policies that help ensure safety amidst a growing number of commercial satellite operations taking to Earth orbit.
Loyaan A. Egal, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau Chief, called the settlement “a breakthrough” and added that it “[makes] very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”
The recent settlement follows the FCC’s establishment of its new Space Bureau and its Space Innovation Agenda.
In March, an international group of scientists and experts in space technology called for a legally binding treaty to protect Earth from falling space junk which they believe could result from expanding industries operating in Earth’s orbit in the years ahead.
The team, who likened the problem of space junk accumulating in Earth’s orbit to pollution in our oceans, outlined their concerns in the journal Science, and highlighted concerns about the estimated 9000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth currently, as well as the expected increase to more than six times that number that may occur by 2030.
In addition to the fine it received, Dish Network was also required to include an admission of liability, according to the details of the recent settlement. The company has agreed to ensure compliance in the future.