Space debris investigation results in fines and “admissions” of satellite broadcasters.


Space debris:Satellite television company Dish Network has been fined $150,000 for failing to properly dispose of one of its satellites, the first such penalty imposed by federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission, which authorizes space telecommunications services, announced Monday that it has resolved its investigation into Disch, resulting in fines and an “admission of liability” for the company.

“This is a first for the Commission in space debris enforcement as the Commission has increased its satellite policy efforts,” the FCC said in a press release. Dish responded in a statement, calling the satellite “an older spacecraft (launched in 2002) that is specifically exempt from FCC rules requiring a minimum orbit to leave.”

Dish also said the FCC does not claim the satellite “raises any orbital debris concerns” and said the company “has a long history of safely flying constellations of large satellites and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee.”

Space debris is becoming an increasingly pressing issue for satellite operators. It is estimated that there are nearly 700,000 pieces of uncontrolled debris larger than 0.4 inches (1 cm) orbiting the Earth. These objects may pose a risk of collision with active satellites, the International Space Station or other debris, further increasing the risk of collisions in space. And until recently, the satellite industry was largely self-regulated to meet the strictest waste reduction recommendations. The FCC investigation into Dish focuses on a satellite called EchoStar-7. It was launched in 2002 into geostationary orbit, a realm of space about 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a decommissioning plan in 2012 to ensure that a satellite is decommissioned approximately 186 miles (300 kilometers) above its operating range, essentially sending the decommissioned satellite into a graveyard orbit that poses no risk to other active satellites.

Space debris
Dish Network is the first company to be fined by the FCC for improper satellite disposal. One of the company’s satellite dishes is seen on the roof of a home in Crockett, California, on July 31. Credit: CNN.COM

But according to the FCC, Dish didn’t leave enough fuel on the satellite to do the trick. Instead, EchoStar-7 was left in orbit only about 76 miles (122 kilometers) above the geostationary active region.

According to the FCC’s approval order: “Orbital debris in space can threaten the nation’s terrestrial and space communications systems by increasing the risk of damage to satellite communications systems.” “Therefore, the Commission must ensure that satellite licensees comply with post-mission disposal requirements in a manner consistent with their authorizations.”

Geostationary orbit is much higher than low Earth orbit and is home to the International Space Station and thousands of small satellites (including SpaceX’s Starlink network), as well as most of the problematic space debris. But geostationary orbit is still home to large, expensive telecommunications satellites, such as those operated by Dish, Intelsat, SES and Viasat.


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