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Dish Network Receives Historic Fine from US for Space Debris


The United States government has imposed its inaugural fine on a company for contributing to the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has penalized Dish Network with a $150,000 (£125,000) fine for neglecting to relocate an obsolete satellite far enough from active satellites.

Dish Network has acknowledged its responsibility for the EchoStar-7 satellite and has entered into a "compliance plan" with the FCC. Space debris, also known as space junk, consists of defunct technology and components like outdated satellites and spacecraft that linger in Earth's orbit, posing collision risks.

The FCC has determined that Dish's satellite, EchoStar-7, at its current altitude, presented a potential hazard to other operational satellites in Earth's orbit. Although Dish was supposed to move the satellite 186 miles farther from Earth, by the end of its operational life in 2022, it had only managed to shift it 76 miles due to fuel loss.

Loyaan Egal, chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau, stated, "As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments." He highlighted that this settlement demonstrates the FCC's enforcement authority in enforcing vital space debris regulations.

The $150,000 fine, relative to Dish's total revenue of $16.7 billion in 2022, represents a small fraction. Nevertheless, it could set a precedent for other satellite operators, as noted by Dr. Megan Argo, senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire. Dr. Argo emphasized that the FCC's use of regulatory powers for the first time is likely to make the industry more attentive and suggests a willingness to enforce regulations in the future.

The accumulation of space debris is a growing concern, with more than 10,000 satellites launched into space since the first one in 1957, with over half of them now defunct. NASA reports over 25,000 pieces of space debris measuring over 10cm in length. The issue of space debris has necessitated maneuvers such as adjusting the International Space Station's orbit to avoid potentially hazardous encounters.

Nasa's Bill Nelson has highlighted the severity of the problem, explaining that even a small paint chip traveling at orbital speeds can pose a lethal threat to astronauts during spacewalks.