The FCC just dished out their first space junk fine

Loitering in orbit just got a lot pricier.
Illustration of trackable objects orbiting Earth

It's even more cluttered up there than it looks. ESA

The Federal Communications Commission is officially doling out fines for space polluters, and the popular satellite television provider Dish Network earned the dubious honor of receiving the first ticket. On October 2, the FCC announced it slapped the telecommunications company with a $150,000 penalty after failing to properly deorbit its decommissioned, direct broadcast EchoStar-7 satellite last year. According to the FCC, the fine comes with an admission of liability, as well as an agreement to follow a “compliance plan” to help make way for the thousands of orbital projects in the works around the world.

[Related: FCC slaps voter suppression robocall scammers with a record-breaking fine.]

Space junk is already a huge concern for any industry requiring operations high above the planet, with literal millions of trash bits orbiting Earth at any given moment. In July, NASA director Bill Nelson told the BBC space junk poses a “major problem,” explaining that even something like a small paint chip striking an astronaut during a spacewalk at orbital speed (17,500 mph) “can be fatal.” Experts also worry about humans accidentally initiating a “Kessler cascade” or “Kessler syndrome.” In such situations, orbital space becomes so polluted that debris collisions are impossible to avoid, thus producing an exponentially increasing cycle of more collisions that create more debris. Were this to occur, the future of space exploration and travel could remain stymied until governments and companies begin complicated, costly cleanup efforts. 

Dish Network’s EchoStar-7 satellite launched and achieved geostationary orbit in 2002, and received FCC approval for an eventual orbital mitigation plan in 2012. According to the agreement, the telecoms company committed to eventually boost the satellite roughly 300 km above its operational arc. In February 2022, however, Dish Network revealed the satellite did not have enough remaining propellant to adhere to the original agreement’s altitude. In the end, the EchoStar-7 satellite only retired about 122 km above its geostationary arc—far lower than planned. Last year, the FCC also announced plans to finally begin tighter restrictions on satellites’ lifespans and decommissioning protocols.

[Related: Some space junk just got smacked by more space junk, complicating cleanup.]

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A. Egal said via Monday’s announcement. “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 August, a space debris cleanup pilot project overseen by the European Space Agency quickly turned into a logistical headache after its orbital trash target appeared to collide with another piece of debris. Luckily, the ESA and its partners at Swiss startup ClearSpace-1 stated at the time that their project appears able to progress as planned.