FCC issues first-ever space debris penalty worth $150K

The FCC penalized DISH, a US satellite broadcast provider, over the company’s failure to properly deorbit a satellite in a first-of-its-kind decision.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded an investigation of DISH. The investigation settlement includes DISH admitting liability and agreeing to pay a penalty of $150,000.

According to the FCC, DISH violated the terms of its license by disposing of the satellite at a higher elevation than agreed.

The elevation of spacecraft disposal matters because parts of the satellite could contaminate the orbit, posing a danger to other spacecraft that may cross the same trajectory.

The license that the FCC issued to DISH required the company to dispose of its EchoStar-7 satellite 300 km above its operational geostationary orbit. Meanwhile, the company deorbited its spacecraft 122 km above its operational orbit.

The company said that the satellite had very little propellant left and could not complete the move required to comply with the FCC’s regulation.

The number of operational satellites has grown almost exponentially in the past several years. While 1,100 spacecraft whizzed around the planet in 2013, there are now nearly 7,000 satellites in orbit.

The increasing number of satellite launches adds to the debris left in orbit. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are 36,500 space debris objects greater than 10 cm, one million space debris objects from 1 cm to 10 cm, and 130 million from 1 mm to 1 cm.

NASA estimates that the average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object is approximately ten times faster than the speed of a bullet. A collision event could severely impact operational satellites and human missions.

The first-ever accidental in-orbit collision between two spacecraft occurred on February 10th, 2009, after Iridium-33, a privately owned US satellite, and the Russian military satellite Kosmos2251 collided.

The largest space-debris-producing event is attributed to a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test (ASAT) conducted in 2007. The event produced over three thousand pieces of space debris. Scientists estimate more than 32,000 smaller pieces from the event are currently untracked.

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