In a pioneering move, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on Monday that it has imposed its inaugural space debris enforcement fine amounting to $150,000 on DISH Network’s wholly owned unit, DISH, for inadequate de-orbiting of its EchoStar-7 satellite.
The FCC emphasized the importance of adhering to responsible space practices, citing concerns about potential orbital debris resulting from DISH’s actions. The satellite policy efforts of the FCC have seen a significant boost in recent years, underscoring the regulatory agency’s commitment to ensure compliance within the space sector.
DISH, owning up to its liability, has agreed to follow a comprehensive compliance plan as mandated by the commission. However, the company has yet to issue a formal response regarding the enforcement fine.
According to the FCC, DISH relocated its EchoStar-7 satellite, a direct broadcast service satellite, to a disposal orbit considerably below the altitude specified in its license terms at the end of its mission. This deviation from the stipulated license terms occurred after the satellite’s launch in 2002.
FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan Egal hailed Monday’s announcement as a “breakthrough settlement,” underlining the FCC’s robust enforcement authority in ensuring compliance with crucial space debris rules.
In 2012, the FCC approved a plan where DISH committed to raising the satellite to an altitude of 300 kilometers (186.41 miles) above its operational geostationary arc upon concluding its mission. However, DISH communicated in February 2022 that the satellite had limited propellant, hindering the adherence to the initial orbital debris mitigation plan outlined in its license, Reuters news report said.
Despite the challenges, DISH proceeded to retire the satellite at a disposal orbit, falling short of the specified mitigation altitude, as indicated by the FCC.
In a proactive step to address the mounting risks associated with orbital debris to space exploration, the FCC approved new rules in September 2022. These rules advocate for a shorter timeframe to remove defunct satellites, mandating post-mission disposal of low-Earth orbit satellites within five years. This marked a significant reduction from the earlier recommendation of ensuring re-entry within 25 years for satellites in low-Earth orbit.
The FCC’s focus on responsible space practices underscores the critical need to manage space debris effectively, especially as the number of defunct satellites continues to rise. Of the approximately 10,000 satellites deployed since 1957, over half are no longer operational, as highlighted by the FCC last year.