FCC issues first-ever fine for leaving junk in space

Dish Network will pay the price for failing to move its EchoStar-7 satellite out of harm’s way | Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The FCC has issued its first fine for space junk to Dish Network for not properly deorbiting its satellite. The company admitted it was liable for not shifting its EchoStar-7 to a safer spot and will pay a penalty of $150,000 and implement a compliance plan.

Space debris — non-functioning manmade materials floating around space — can pose a hazard to working infrastructure, including the ISS, which has had run-ins with debris in the past. According to the FCC, defunct satellites like Dish’s can also interfere with “the nation’s terrestrial and space-based communication systems by increasing the risk of damage to satellite communications systems.”

“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 enforcement bureau chief Loyaan A. Egal said in a press release.

Dish had told the FCC it had a plan for dealing with the direct broadcast satellite way back in 2012. By May of 2022, it was going to move the EchoStar-7 186 miles (300 km) above the geostationary orbit it had worked in (22,000 miles above the surface of Earth). By February, however, Dish realized the satellite didn’t have enough propellant left to complete its maneuver, and it shut it down about 76 miles (122 km) away, where it could still prove to be a hazard.

This failure meant the company had broken the terms of its FCC license, resulting in an investigation and subsequent fine.

The issue of how to deal with all the trash in space is an ongoing and complex one, but this is the first time the FCC has fined a company. While $150,000 is pocket change for Dish, a regulatory organization with some teeth has a much better chance of making companies clean up their mess.

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