Saturday, July 13

Dish Is First Company to Be Fined By F.C.C. Over Space Junk Rule

With a growing number of satellites orbiting the Earth and space junk increasingly becoming a concern, the Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it had for the first time fined a company for failing to properly dispose of a dead satellite.

The commission said that Dish, the television provider, had agreed as part of a settlement to pay a $150,000 fine for failing to thrust its defunct EchoStar-7 broadcast satellite to a higher altitude and into a designated space junkyard zone where it would pose little threat of colliding with active communications satellites and other spacecraft.

As part of the settlement, Dish admitted liability, the F.C.C. said.

Commercial broadcast satellites like EchoStar-7 require an F.C.C. license to operate in space. The license includes a commitment by the operator to properly dispose of the satellite at the end of its life.

A spokeswoman for Dish said Tuesday that EchoStar-7, launched in 2002, was an older satellite that had been “explicitly exempted from the F.C.C.’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit.”

But in 2012, Dish agreed to comply with a minimum disposal orbit of 300 kilometers, or about 185 miles, above its original orbit as it sought to modify the conditions of its license.

The fine that the F.C.C. imposed on Dish lays the groundwork for future F.C.C. enforcement of space debris disposal regulations, which are expected to play a bigger role as satellites continue to proliferate and humankind becomes increasingly dependent on them.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” Loyaan A. Egal, the chief of the F.C.C.’s enforcement bureau, said in a news release.

“This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the F.C.C. has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules,” he added.

The F.C.C. requires companies to move a satellite that has reached the end of its life cycle into orbit 300 kilometers above its operating orbit. When the 20-year-old EchoStar-7 satellite reached the end of its life last year, it made it only 122 kilometers above its operational orbit, less than half of the required distance, the commission said.

While in service, the satellite operated in what is known as geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kilometers above the equator, where television, weather and military satellites operate.

“It’s a very valuable piece of space, and quite crowded as these things go,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University’s Smithsonian Observatory.

“So if you had a big collision in geo and lots of debris there, that would be very bad,” he added, referring to geostationary orbit. “So we try and be careful to keep geo free of dead satellites.”

There are roughly 500 satellites in geostationary orbit, Mr. McDowell said. They account for part of the estimated 5,500 working satellites orbiting the Earth, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Most satellites, roughly 4,500 of them, are in what’s known as lower Earth orbit, roughly 2,000 kilometers above the Earth, according to the report.

Dish had projected the satellite would have enough fuel to propel itself into the required disposal orbit in May 2022, but the calculation was wrong, and the satellite ran out of fuel three months earlier, according to the F.C.C.

“They miscalculated how much fuel they had left,” Mr. McDowell said. “That, to me, is more culpable than, ‘Oh, we had unexpected failure and that we couldn’t raise it.’”

Though a single dead satellite probably doesn’t pose a catastrophic threat to the active satellites in orbit, Mr. McDowell said, the disposal rules ought to be respected.

“How many would it take?” he asked. “We don’t want to find out.”