For the first time, the Federal Communications Commission issued a space debris fine against a company.
Dish Network received a $150,000 fine on Tuesday as the FCC claims that a now-defunct satellite was unable to reach a proper altitude for it to orbit.
According to the FCC, Dish Network launched its EchoStar-7 satellite in 2002. The satellite was given approval to remain in geosynchronous orbit for 10 years. In 2012, Dish Network received a 10-year extension for the satellite to remain in geosynchronous orbit. With the 2012 extension, Dish Network agreed to bring the satellite to an altitude of 300 kilometers above the operational orbit at the end of its life in 2022.
Based on remaining fuel resources, Dish Network planned to launch its end-of-mission deorbit maneuvers in May 2022. Months earlier, however, the FCC said that Dish learned that the satellite did not contain enough propellant to reach the 300-kilometer altitude.
The satellite was instead retired at an altitude of 122 kilometers above the geostationary arc. The FCC said that at this lower altitude, the satellite poses orbital debris concerns.
“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A. Egal said in a statement. “This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”
The FCC said the rule is necessary to reduce the risk posed by space debris on communication satellites.
According to the European Space Agency, satellites in geosynchronous orbit remain at an altitude of about 22,236 miles above Earth. This keeps satellites in a fixed position above the planet.
Unlike satellites kept in low Earth orbit, these satellites are not intended to return to Earth at the end of their life. In 2022, the FCC approved new rules that require defunct spacecraft in low Earth orbit to be disposed of within five years of the end of their life. These spacecraft generally travel within 620 miles of the Earth's surface.
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