With a growing number of satellites orbiting Earth and space debris becoming more concerning, the Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday that it had fined a company for the first time for failing to properly dispose of a dead satellite.
The commission said Dish, the television provider, had agreed, as part of a settlement, to pay a $150,000 fine for failing to boost its defunct EchoStar-7 broadcast satellite to a higher altitude and to a designated scrapyard area. space where it would pose little threat. from colliding with active communications satellites and other spacecraft.
As part of the settlement, Dish admitted liability, the FCC said.
Commercial broadcast satellites like EchoStar-7 require an FCC license to operate in space. The license includes the operator’s commitment to adequately dispose of the satellite at the end of its life.
A Dish spokeswoman said Tuesday that EchoStar-7, launched in 2002, was an older satellite that had been “explicitly exempt from the FCC rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit.”
But in 2012, Dish agreed to comply with a minimum disposal orbit of 300 kilometers, or about 185 miles, above its original orbit as it sought to modify the conditions of its license.
The fine the FCC imposed on Dish lays the groundwork for the FCC’s future enforcement of space debris disposal regulations, which are expected to play a larger role as satellites continue to proliferate and humanity becomes increasingly dependent on them.
“As satellite operations become more frequent and the space economy accelerates, we must be sure that operators meet their commitments,” Loyaan A. Egal, head of the agency’s compliance office, said in a news release. FCC.
“This is a groundbreaking agreement, making it abundantly clear that the FCC has strong authority and ability to enforce its vitally important rules on space debris,” he added.
The FCC requires companies to move a satellite that has reached the end of its life cycle to an orbit 300 kilometers above its operational orbit. When the 20-year-old EchoStar-7 satellite reached the end of its life last year, it was just 122 kilometers above its operational orbit, less than half the required distance, the commission said.
While in service, the satellite operated in what is known as geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kilometers above the equator, where television, weather and military satellites operate.
“It’s a very valuable and quite busy piece of space,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University’s Smithsonian Observatory.
“So if there was a big collision in geo and a lot of debris there, it would be very bad,” he added, referring to geostationary orbit. “So we try to be careful to keep the geography free of dead satellites.”
There are approximately 500 satellites in geostationary orbit, McDowell said. They represent part of the approximately 5,500 operational satellites orbiting Earth, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
According to the report, most of the satellites, approximately 4,500 of them, are in what is known as lower Earth orbit, about 2,000 kilometers above Earth.
Dish had projected that the satellite would have enough fuel to boost itself to the required disposal orbit in May 2022, but the calculation was incorrect and the satellite ran out of fuel three months earlier, according to the FCC.
“They miscalculated how much fuel they had left,” McDowell said. “That, to me, is more guilty than saying, ‘Oh, we had an unexpected failure and we couldn’t fix it.’”
Although a single dead satellite probably does not pose a catastrophic threat to active satellites in orbit, McDowell said, disposal rules must be respected.
“How many would it take?” she asked. “We don’t want to know.”