FCC Issues First Space Debris Fine

FCC Issues First Space Debris Fine

The Federal Communications Commission issued a fine today for violating space debris requirements. The DISH satellite television company must admit liability and pay $150,000 for not properly disposing of its EchoStar-7 satellite at the end of its lifetime. It is the first time the FCC has taken an enforcement action regarding space debris.

The FCC regulates terrestrial and space use of the electromagnetic spectrum by the commercial sector. The National Telecomunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce does that for government users.

Satellites need spectrum to communicate back to Earth. Spectrum is a finite natural resource that is only useful if everyone follow the rules to avoid harmful interference. Similarly, space itself is only useful if it does not become so littered with space debris that space objects bump into each other, creating yet more space debris.

Population of objects orbiting Earth. The outer circular band is geostationary orbit. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.

The FCC has become increasingly involved in trying to stem the growth of space debris as part of its licensing of satellite frequencies. Earlier this year it reduced a guideline that satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), defined as 2,000 kilometers and below, be deorbited within 5 years of the end of their operational lifetimes instead of 25 years. LEO is becoming increasingly congested with the launches of thousands of satellites in constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink broadband communications network.

Today’s decision was about a different portion of Earth orbit, however, geostationary orbit (GEO).

GEO is located 35,800 kilometers above the equator and a satellite placed there will maintain a fixed position relative to a point on Earth. That makes it particularly useful for global and regional satellite communications and until the recent megaconstellation boom, almost all commercial communications satellites were there. Only a few GEO satellites are needed to provide service to the entire globe (except the polar regions), but the signal lag time is longer than when the satellites are in LEO, so it’s a tradeoff.

Illustration of types of Earth orbits. Credit: Government Accountability Office report GAO-22-105166.

For decades, commercial GEO satellite operators have been expected to boost their satellites into a “graveyard” orbit high above GEO at the end of their missions where they are out of the way and pose virtually no danger of collision. Satellites have to retain enough fuel for that final maneuver and DISH didn’t do that in the case of EchoStar-7.

DISH had filed a debris mitigation plan with the FCC assuring that the satellite would be boosted 300 kilometers above GEO, but when the time came last year there was only enough fuel to raise it 122 kilometers. That is “well below the elevation required by the terms of its license,” according to the FCC, where “it could pose orbital debris concerns.”

DISH and the FCC reached agreement and a Consent Decree was issued today, closing the case.

In a statement, the chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, Loyaan Egal, called it a “breakthrough settlement.”


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