The recipient of this fine is Dish Network, a prominent television company, which failed to adhere to proper satellite disposal protocols, potentially posing concerns for orbital debris.
Reasons for the penalty
The fine, totaling €142,440, was issued in response to Dish Network’s inadequate handling of EchoStar-7, a satellite that has occupied space since its launch in 2002.
The FCC’s official statement highlights Dish’s failure to “properly deorbit” the satellite as the primary reason for the penalty. Notably, EchoStar-7 was originally placed in geostationary orbit at an altitude of around 36,000 kilometers above Earth.
In 2012, as the satellite approached the end of its operational lifespan, Dish Network had committed to raising its altitude to 300 kilometers above its operational trajectory.
This move was intended to position it in a "graveyard orbit," a safe location where it would no longer pose a threat to other satellites. However, due to dwindling fuel reserves, Dish opted for a lower altitude of just over 120 kilometers above geostationary orbit, which left it 178 kilometers off the agreed position.
This resolution is indeed a turning point, underscoring the FCC’s robust enforcement authority and its ability to uphold crucial space debris regulations. The agreement between the FCC and Dish Network includes the company’s acknowledgment of liability, a commitment to adhere to a compliance plan, and a financial penalty of $150,000.
Dish Network has yet to respond to inquiries for comments regarding the fine and the situation surrounding EchoStar-7.
Space waste risks
The issue of space waste is a growing concern, with the European Space Agency estimating that there are over a million pieces of debris larger than a centimeter orbiting Earth. Debris of this size can potentially disable spacecraft and satellites, posing significant risks to ongoing operations in space.
These problems are not just theoretical. In a notable incident last year, a Chinese satellite narrowly avoided a collision with debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile test, with the two objects coming within just 14.5 meters of each other. In another case in 2021, space debris caused a five-millimeter hole in a robotic arm on the International Space Station, highlighting the very real dangers posed by space waste.
The FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief, Loyaan A. Egal, emphasized the need for strict compliance from satellite operators as satellite operations become more widespread and the space economy continues to grow. It’s evident that safeguarding our orbital environment is of paramount importance, and the FCC’s recent actions emphasize its commitment to ensuring that all operators adhere to their obligations.
An escalating problem
Space waste, or space junk, refers to the fragments left behind in Earth’s orbit, mostly consisting of debris from rocket-launching material and retired satellites.
The accumulation of space waste has been an escalating concern. In 1961, at the onset of space exploration, the number of accumulated debris pieces was under 1,000. Today, that figure stands at nearly 30,000, and this count only includes trackable fragments. As the debris continues to mount, it presents an ever-growing challenge to space travel and exploration.
Space waste, formally referred to as orbital debris, encompasses a broad spectrum of objects, ranging from bits and pieces of inactive satellites to the rockets that launched them, debris from missiles, and remnants left behind by astronauts.
These objects vary in size, from substantial structures like the Envisat satellite, launched in 2002 and comparable in size to a school bus, to minuscule paint chips. Surprisingly, even small fragments have the potential to pose substantial threats.
The process of junk entering space mirrors how waste accumulates on Earth – people either intentionally put it there or leave it behind. Sometimes, debris finds its way into space during rocket launches, while other times, no one takes responsibility for bringing down decommissioned satellites.
Accidents, too, contribute to space debris. In 1965, the explosion of two satellites produced nearly 500 fragments, and a historic collision 15 years ago generated over 3,200 pieces, marking the highest-impact collision recorded in space.
Future challenges and potential solutions
Space debris is accumulating at an alarming rate. Since the inception of space exploration, over 15,000 satellites have been launched into orbit.
Today, rocket launches occur more than three times a week, often deploying multiple satellites, with each launch capable of generating additional junk. In the year 2000, there were approximately 8,000 trackable debris pieces in space. By 2019, that number had surged to around 20,000. Only four years later, we find ourselves contending with nearly 30,000 objects larger than a softball drifting in space.
At least 70 countries now boast space agencies, and many have amplified their space budgets. Based on proposed projects sponsored by various government and private entities, there may be up to 12,000 new satellites launched annually in the coming decade.
As interest in space exploration burgeons, there is a pressing need for comprehensive policies to curb space junk accumulation. It is essential for nations and private companies alike to develop, approve, and adhere to measures that support these efforts.
However, one of the major challenges is organizing nations and entities to undertake the daunting task of cleaning up space. Questions about funding and ownership of space debris complicate this effort, emphasizing the need for cooperation and consensus on a global scale.