Head of Space & Satellite | Developer | Energy & Infrastructure
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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on the 2 October the issue of its first fine to a company, Dish Network, that violated its anti-space debris rule. The failure to dispose of a satellite at the end of its operational life violated the FCC's Communications Act. The rules that satellite operators must dispose of their satellites within five years of mission completion were brought in in 2022 in response to growing concern about space debris.
In 2002, Dish launched its EchoStar-7 satellite into geostationary orbit – a field of space that begins 22,000 miles (36,000km) above Earth. It agreed in 2012 to an orbital debris mitigation plan with the FCC that, upon completion of EchoStar-7’s mission, would send the satellite 186 miles (300km) above where it was stationed, into a “graveyard orbit” where it would not be a risk to other active satellites.
However at the end of its life in February 2022 Dish had moved the satellite only 76 miles after it lost fuel. Dish had to leave the satellite 100 miles (178km) short of its designated disposal region. Where EchoStar-7 has been left the FCC believes it now poses a potential risk to other satellites orbiting the earth.
Dish admitted liability over the EchoStar-7 satellite and agreed to a compliance plan with the FCC. Dish also must pay $150,000 to the commission over its failure.
Loyaan A Egal, the FCC’s enforcement bureau chief, gave a statement referencing the commission's intent to enforce the rules around space debris:
“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments. This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”
Space debris is a serious problem, and one Foot Anstey has spoken about regarding sustainability in space. The more old, defunct, or piecemeal material in orbit the more difficult it is to find space for new satellites and launch paths, and the greater the risk of collisions. Even the smallest item of space debris could have a catastrophic effect due to the speed with which space debris travels.
There are exciting plans from companies such as AstroScale and ClearSpace for missions to clean up space through innovative space debris removal projects. Exciting as these plans are, relying on future tech to solve the problem is insufficient. Responsible space entrepreneurship and use requires planning for de-orbit, servicing, and removal before launch.
The Artemis Accords, a set of statements that set out common principles, guidelines, and best practices that are applicable to the safe exploration of the moon and eventually beyond, make specific reference to space debris. One principle of the Artemis Accords is:
"Orbital Debris: Artemis Accords countries are committed to planning for the safe timely and efficient disposal of debris as part of the mission planning process. Signatories of the accords also agree that they should limit the generation of new long-lived or harmful debris. This includes the safe disposal of space structures in the post-operation phase of missions."
The UK is one of the countries that has signed the Artemis Accords, alongside the USA and 27 other countries, signalling an intention to take responsible space use seriously. As more satellites come to the end of their lives we can expect to see the FCC take continuingly robust action over disposal failures and other countries follow suit with satellite disposal specific legislation.
When considering launch, planning for de-orbit, for servicing, and for disposal is crucial, not just as part of responsible space use but to avoid the imposition of fines and other future penalties. Speak to our team of expert advisers about how to plan for every stage of your mission.