U.S Govt. Fines A TV Provider Over Orbital Debris

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  • One million pieces of debris are large enough to “disable a spacecraft”
  • In 2012, Dish committed to raising a satellite to 300 kilometres above its operational arc

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently imposed a first-ever fine of US$150,000  over space debris on a TV company.

In 2012, Dish, a US satellite TV provider, committed to raising a satellite to 300 kilometres above its operational arc. However, due to dwindling fuel reserves, the satellite was ultimately retired at an altitude slightly exceeding 120 kilometres above its initial arc.

“This marks a first in space debris enforcement by the Commission, which has stepped up its satellite policy efforts,” the FCC said in a statement.

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As the geostationary satellite ended its operational life, Dish had moved it to an altitude lower than the two parties had agreed on, where it “could pose orbital debris concerns,” the FCC said.

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

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

In a Tuesday statement, Dish challenged the FCC regarding disposal regulations. It contended that the commission’s enforcement division did not identify any particular concerns related to orbital debris safety posed by EchoStar-7.

“As the Enforcement Bureau recognises in the settlement, the EchoStar-7 satellite was an older spacecraft that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit,” a Dish spokesperson said.

“DISH has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee.”

The FAA has also announced its plans to reduce space debris by requiring private companies to dispose of the upper stages of rocket launch vehicles. The new regulation, which has yet to be definitively adopted, already exists for government space missions.

“If left unchecked, the accumulation of orbital debris will increase the risk of collisions and clutter orbits used for human spaceflight and for satellites,” the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The European Space Agency has estimated and shared that 1 million pieces of debris are large enough to “disable a spacecraft” – are in Earth’s orbit.

These incidents are already creating issues from a close encounter in January last year with a Chinese satellite to a 5mm hole puncturing a robotic arm on the International Space Station in 2021. With satellites playing vital roles in GPS, broadband, and banking data, collisions present substantial risks on Earth.

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