The US issues its first fine for space debris

Space junk orbiting the Earth is becoming a bigger problem. Old rocket parts and decommissioned satellites orbit our planet at high speed, posing a threat not only to satellites that provide essential services, but also to humans on the International Space Station and China’s own orbital facilities.

The situation becomes worse when space debris collides with each other, causing them to break into smaller, equally dangerous pieces.

While we continue to search for effective ways to remove debris from low Earth orbit, the American government is starting to impose fines on companies that are not responsible for machines left in orbit.

This is the first fine imposed by the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has imposed a $150,000 fine on Dish Network for its failure to safely remove its downed satellite so as not to disrupt its satellite operations.

Dish Network acknowledged responsibility regarding the state of the EchoStar-7 satellite and agreed to a compliance plan with the FCC.

The company’s EchoStar-7 was launched in 2002 and is in geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) from Earth. Dish Network was supposed to move the satellite 186 miles (300 kilometers) farther from our planet, but after being decommissioned in 2022, the satellite lost fuel and was only moved 76 miles (122 kilometers).

The inability to execute the agreed-upon maneuver caused Dish Network to violate the terms of its FCC license, resulting in a fine.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must ensure that operators comply with their commitments,” FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan Egal said in a statement.

Egal described the outcome as a “groundbreaking settlement,” making it “very clear that the FCC has strong enforcement authority and the ability to enforce critical space debris regulations.”

It’s too early to say whether the FCC fine will be the first of many, or whether the action will have any real impact on those who leave trash in orbit. If the threat of fines can persuade satellite operators to make better plans for what will happen to their machines once they are decommissioned, then that’s fine, but cleaning up the piles of debris already in orbit is a more pressing issue.

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