The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has imposed a $150,000 fine on satellite television company Dish Network for failing to properly dispose of one of its satellites, according to a news report by CNN. This is the first time the FCC has issued such a penalty for space debris violation.
What is space debris and why is it a problem?
Space debris refers to any uncontrolled or non-functional objects in orbit around the Earth, such as defunct satellites, rocket stages, or fragments from collisions. It is estimated that there are nearly 700,000 pieces of space debris larger than 0.4 inch (1 centimeter) in Earth’s orbit. These objects pose a risk of colliding with active satellites, the International Space Station, or other pieces of debris, creating more debris and potentially damaging or destroying vital communication and navigation systems.
Space debris is becoming an increasingly pressing issue for satellite operators, as the number of satellites in orbit grows rapidly due to the emergence of new technologies and services, such as broadband internet, remote sensing, and space tourism. The FCC, which authorizes space-based telecom services in the US, has established rules and guidelines for satellite operators to mitigate the risk of space debris, such as requiring them to dispose of their satellites in a safe and timely manner at the end of their operational life.
What did Dish Network do wrong?
The FCC’s investigation into Dish Network centered on a satellite called EchoStar-7, which was launched to geostationary orbit — a field of space that begins about 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth — in 2002. The FCC approved a decommissioning plan in 2012 to ensure the satellite would retire about 186 miles (300 kilometers) above its operational field — essentially putting the defunct satellite into a graveyard orbit where it wouldn’t pose a risk to other active satellites.
However, according to the FCC, Dish Network did not leave enough fuel on board the satellite to make that maneuver possible. And EchoStar-7 was instead left dead in an orbit only about 76 miles (122 kilometers) above the active areas in geostationary orbit. This violates the FCC’s rule that requires satellite operators to dispose of their satellites in a minimum disposal orbit, which is intended to prevent congestion and collisions in the geostationary orbit.
The FCC said that Dish Network admitted its liability and agreed to pay the fine, as well as to implement a compliance plan to ensure future compliance with the FCC’s rules and regulations. The FCC also said that this marks the first time it has enforced its space debris rules, and that it has stepped up its satellite policy efforts to protect the nation’s terrestrial and space-based communication systems.
How did Dish Network respond?
Dish Network responded in a statement, saying that the satellite at issue was “an older spacecraft (launched in 2002) that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit”. Dish Network also said that the FCC made no claims that the satellite “poses any orbital debris safety concerns” and that the company has a “long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee”.
Dish Network is one of the largest satellite television providers in the US, with more than 10 million subscribers as of June 2023. The company operates a fleet of about 30 satellites in various orbits, providing services such as pay-TV, broadband internet, and mobile phone.
What are the implications of this case?
This case is significant because it shows that the FCC is taking a more active role in regulating and enforcing the space debris issue, which has been largely left to the self-regulation of the satellite industry until recently. The FCC has also proposed new rules and guidelines for satellite operators to improve their space debris mitigation practices, such as requiring them to demonstrate the reliability of their disposal systems, to limit the orbital lifetime of their satellites, and to avoid collisions with other objects.
The case also highlights the challenges and trade-offs that satellite operators face in managing their space assets, such as balancing the operational life and fuel consumption of their satellites, complying with the regulatory requirements and best practices, and ensuring the safety and sustainability of the space environment. As the demand and competition for space services increase, satellite operators will need to adopt more innovative and responsible solutions to address the space debris problem.