The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said the defunct satellite “could pose orbital debris concerns”

This week, the FCC has issued DISH with a fine of $150,000 after the US television provider failed to de-orbit one of its retiring satellites correctly.

DISH launched its EchoStar-7 satellite back in 2002, leaving it sitting in geostationary orbit and using it to broadcast television services for over 20 years.

By 2012, DISH was already making plans for EchoStar-7’s retirement, agreeing with the FCC that it would propel the satellite an additional 300km away from the Earth, pushing it into what is known as a ‘graveyard orbit’. This is done to reduce space debris in the more congested operational orbits, thereby reducing the chance that the inoperable satellite would collide with operational spacecraft.

This process was expected to take place in 2022. However, when it came to performing the crucial manoeuvre, DISH reportedly discovered that EchoStar-7 did not have enough fuel to increase its orbit by the planned 300km, making it only 122km above its previous position.

This failure to dispose of their satellite as planned has led the FCC to issue its first ever fine for the creation of space debris.

“This marks a first in space debris enforcement by the Commission, which has stepped up its satellite policy efforts, including establishing the Space Bureau and implementing its Space Innovation Agenda.  The settlement includes an admission of liability from the company and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan and pay a penalty of $150,000,” said the FCC’s statement.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” added Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A. 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.”

DISH accepted responsibility for the error.

As communication satellite constellations become increasingly common around the world, so too does the threat of orbital space debris. At its theoretical worst, the density of space pollution could lead to the Kessler syndrome, a scenario whereby collisions between orbital objects cause a cascade of further collisions, essentially making satellite activities impossible for many years.

As a result, the FCC has gradually been increasing regulation what happens to satellites after their decommissioning, such as proposing that satellites are deorbited no later than five years after their retirement, down from the 25 years previously required by NASA.

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