The U.S. government's crackdown on potentially hazardous debris floating in outer space began this week with its first-ever penalty against a company for failing to bring an aging satellite to a safe orbit.
An investigation by the Federal Communications Commission found that the Dish Network disposed of one of its satellites at an orbit "well below the elevation required by the terms of its license," the agency announced on Monday. In a settlement, the U.S. satellite television company agreed to a pay a $150,000 fine, a first in the commission's ramped-up efforts to enforce space debris regulations.
“This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules," Loyaan Egal, acting chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau, said in a statement. “As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments."
In addition to the monetary penalty, the commission said the settlement includes an admission of liability from Dish and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan.
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Dish launched EchoStar-7 satellite in 2002
Dish launched the satellite known as EchoStar-7 in 2002 into geostationary orbit, a field of space that begins 22,000 miles above the equator where spacecrafts can appear to be stationary to Earthbound observers.
Ten years later, the company filed a plan approved by the FCC to send the satellite to an orbit where it wouldn't pose a risk to active satellites, or about 300 kilometers above where it was stationed at the end of its mission, according to the commission. Dish had planned to conduct the satellite's end-of-mission maneuvers in May 2022 based on estimates of remaining fuel.
But three months beforehand, Dish determined that the satellite had very little propellant left and therefore could not follow its original plan in its license, the FCC said. Instead, the commission said Dish retired the satellite at a lower disposal orbit approximately 122 kilometers above the geostationary arc, "well short of the disposal orbit" to which it had agreed, according to the statement.
As a result, the commission said that Dish violated the Communications Act, FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license.
Dish said in a statement to USA TODAY that the satellite was an older spacecraft "that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit."
"The Bureau made no specific findings that EchoStar-7 poses any orbital debris safety concerns," according to the statement. "DISH has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee."
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Historic fine comes as FCC begins crackdown on space debris
The threat of collisions is a growing concern in outer space, where space junk made up of defunct human-made objects continues to whiz around at high speeds, according to the Natural History Museum. In fact, dozens of near-collisions between active satellites or pieces of rockets occur ever year, The Washington Post reported in January.
The European Space Agency estimates that there are more than 34,000 pieces of debris that could cause cataclysmic damage if they were to hit something.
Space debris has become a growing concern in recent years for the FCC, which in 2022 adopted a rule that would require satellite operators to dispose of their satellites within five years of mission completion.
Earlier this year, the commission established a Space Bureau in an effort to better enforce regulations meant to minimize space debris and prevent interference in satellite operations.
Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Space junk crackdown: Dish hit with $150,000 FCC fine for errant satellite