The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a $150,000 fine to the television provider DISH for failing to move a retired satellite far enough away from its original orbit, the FCC announced Monday in a statement.
It’s the first time the United States government has fined a company for an issue related to space debris—human-made objects, often orbiting Earth, that no longer serve a purpose in space. The amount of junk circling our planet is increasing, posing a greater risk to functioning satellites, as well as to some space-based telescopes and the International Space Station.
“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 says in the 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 settlement included an admission of liability from DISH, and the company agreed to follow a compliance plan, per the statement.
“The fact that they’ve actually used their regulatory powers for the first time is certainly likely to at least make the rest of the industry sit up and pay attention,” Megan Argo, an astrophysicist at the University of Central Lancashire in England, tells BBC News’ Imran Rahman-Jones. And “the fact that they have used it once means that they are likely to use it again.”
DISH launched the satellite, called EchoStar-7, to a geostationary orbit in 2002. Higher than low-Earth orbit, geostationary orbits are more than 22,000 miles above the equator. These satellites rotate at the same rate as Earth, so they appear to remain at a fixed point in the sky relative to the ground.
In a plan approved by the FCC in 2012, DISH committed to sending EchoStar-7 300 kilometers (186 miles) above its orbit at the end of its mission. But in February 2022, three months before it was scheduled to move the satellite, DISH realized EchoStar-7 had very little propellant and only managed to elevate it by 122 kilometers (76 miles).
Geostationary orbit is “a very valuable piece of space, and quite crowded as these things go,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard and Smithsonian, tells the New York Times’ Orlando Mayorquin.
“If you had a big collision in geo and lots of debris there, that would be very bad,” he adds to the publication. “So, we try and be careful to keep geo free of dead satellites.”
In a statement, DISH told USA Today’s Eric Lagatta that the FCC’s regulatory authority “made no specific findings that EchoStar-7 poses any orbital debris safety concerns.”
The space around Earth is only becoming more cluttered. At the end of 2022, the planet was surrounded by more than 6,718 operating satellites, with 4,529 of them from the U.S., according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And the debris raises that number even higher: In total, around 34,000 pieces of space junk larger than ten centimeters are circling the Earth, along with millions of even smaller bits, according to the Natural History Museum in London’s Jonathan O’Callaghan.
Space junk also includes pieces from rocket launches, and exploding satellites and rockets can create tiny fragments of debris that continue to float around Earth, per the European Space Agency (ESA).
As a result of all these pieces of junk flying in space, satellites and the ISS periodically have to perform avoidance maneuvers. Dozens of near-collisions occur each year, as the Washington Post’s Shikha Subramaniam, Rekha Tenjarla and Christian Davenport reported in January.
While collisions are currently rare, the risk will increase as more pieces of debris fill space, per the ESA.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the BBC in July that space junk was a “major problem.”
“Even a paint chip… coming in the wrong direction at orbital speed, which is 17,500 miles an hour, [could] hit an astronaut doing a spacewalk,” he told the publication. “That can be fatal.”
Currently, researchers are studying how defunct satellites could be removed from orbit. And last year, the FCC adopted a rule requiring companies to remove their satellites within five years after they stop using them, writes the Guardian’s Abené Clayton.