October 4, 2023
US operator Dish has earned the dubious honour of becoming the first company to get in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s new Space Bureau.
The agency this week announced it has settled an investigation that found Dish failed to properly deorbit its Echostar-7 direct broadcasting satellite (DBS). Launched in 2002, the geostationary satellite until recently provided spot beam services to the Western US.
The method of retiring these expensive bits of kit depends on the type of satellite. Generally speaking, small, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are supposed to fall into the atmosphere where they burn up. Meanwhile geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites, like EchoStar-7, can use their thrusters to relocate to a much higher ‘graveyard’ orbit, well out of the way from other space users.
According to the FCC, at the end of EchoStar-7’s mission, Dish agreed with the watchdog that it would relocate the defunct device to 300 km above its operating arc. The end-of-mission manoeuvres were due to begin in May 2022.
However, in February of that year, Dish discovered that EchoStar-7’s thrusters lacked sufficient propellant to make the journey. Instead, the satellite was sent to a disposal orbit 122 km above its arc, well below the altitude agreed with the FCC, and rendering it a potentially dangerous piece of space debris.
Space debris is a growing problem.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA)’s latest stats, as of September there were 34,810 pieces of space debris – up from 31,810 a year earlier – with a combined weight of around 11,000 tonnes. There are also 1,990 defunct satellites sitting up there as well.
As per the terms of its settlement with the FCC, Dish has admitted liability, agreed to adhere to a compliance plan, and will pay a modest sum of $150,000.
“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” said Enforcement Bureau chief Loyaan Egal. “This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”
FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel first flagged the growing problem of space junk last September, issuing proposals designed to ensure that the growing number of LEO satellites could safely be deorbited at the end of their missions.
By November it had become apparent that a minor reorganisation of the FCC was necessary in order for the agency to keep pace with the growing space industry. Rosenworcel noted at the time that the FCC was trying to process 64,000 applications for new satellites. Thus, she proposed the creation of a dedicated Space Bureau. The FCC voted unanimously in favour of the motion in January.
While $150,000 is not a big fine, it is a precedent-setting fine, one that signals to other satellite operators that the FCC’s newly-established Space Bureau – in tandem with the Enforcement Bureau – means business.
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