The FCC hit Dish Network with a $150,000 fine for failing to properly dispose of a defunct satellite after its mission ended. It’s the first such penalty the agency has enforced as it attempts to crack down on the growing problem of space junk in low Earth orbit (LEO). Decommissioned satellites and other objects pose a collision risk for other instruments operating in these lower altitudes. In LEO, debris travels at thousands of miles per hour, meaning even a millimeter-sized scrap can pose a serious threat.
While Dish and the FCC had an agreed-upon deorbit plan for the company’s EchoStar-7 satellite, which launched in 2002 and was scheduled to be retired in May 2022, it started running out of fuel earlier than expected. Dish was supposed to maneuver the satellite into the designated graveyard orbit about 186 miles above where it had operated. But, EchoStar-7 only made it about 76 miles up. The company realized in February 2022 that its propellant was too low to carry out the plan, and the satellite was abandoned there.
The FCC is calling the penalty a “breakthrough settlement” after Dish admitted fault and agreed to pay a fine. At $150,000, the fine is merely a slap on the wrist, but it could serve as a warning as the number of continues to rise rapidly. There’s already close to orbiting Earth as of last year, and as companies like SpaceX vie to pump thousands more satellites into space, it’s only getting more cluttered by the day.