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Dish botches satellite deorbit, gets hit with FCC’s first space-debris fine

Image of a satellite in outer space.

Getty Images | Anton Petrus

The Federal Communications Commission said it has issued a space debris enforcement action for the first time ever by imposing a fine of $150,000 on Dish for failing to properly deorbit a TV satellite.

“To settle this matter, Dish admits that it failed to operate the EchoStar-7 satellite in accordance with its authorization, will implement a compliance plan, and will pay a $150,000 civil penalty,” the FCC said in an order issued yesterday. The FCC said the action is “a first in space debris enforcement” and part of its increased focus on satellite policy that included the establishment of a Space Bureau. The FCC added:

The FCC’s investigation found that the company violated the Communications Act, the FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license by relocating its direct broadcast satellite (“DBS”) service EchoStar-7 satellite at the satellite’s end-of-mission to a disposal orbit well below the elevation required by the terms of its license. At this lower altitude, it could pose orbital debris concerns.

FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan Egal called the consent decree “a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

Dish launched the EchoStar-7 satellite in 2002, and its orbital debris mitigation plan was approved by the FCC in 2012. In a statement provided to Ars, Dish said the satellite was “exempted from the FCC’s rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit” because it was launched before the rule applied. “Moreover, the Bureau made no specific findings that EchoStar-7 poses any orbital debris safety concerns. Dish has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee.”

Satellite ended up below disposal orbit

In February 2022, Dish “determined that the EchoStar-7 satellite was unexpectedly running low on propellant and would need to be deorbited shortly,” the consent decree said. “On the same day, Company personnel called International Bureau staff to alert the Commission about the possibility that the satellite might no longer be capable of executing its end-of-life disposal plan as authorized.”

In May 2022, Dish notified the FCC that it “had completed end-of-life deorbit maneuvers and surrendered its license for the EchoStar-7 satellite.” But the satellite was “placed in a disposal orbit approximately 122 km above the geostationary arc, short of the disposal orbit of 300 km specified in its orbital debris mitigation plan.”

Geostationary orbits are about 36,000 km above the planet. Dish admitted that EchoStar-7 didn’t have enough propellant to travel to the required disposal orbit further away from Earth. Also known as graveyard orbits, disposal orbits for geostationary satellites have higher altitudes to limit the chances of colliding with other spacecraft.

Among other new requirements in its compliance plan, Dish will have to improve the accuracy of propellant tracking by “utiliz[ing] all manufacturer recommended methods to assess satellite propellant usage.” It has to report to the FCC on its propellant-tracking progress three times between April 2024 and June 2025. Dish also has to do more detailed planning for end-of-mission disposal and submit compliance reports to the FCC for three years.

While yesterday’s fine relates to a geostationary satellite, an ongoing surge in satellite launches is occurring in low-Earth orbits (LEO). SpaceX’s Starlink broadband division has over 4,800 satellites in orbit and has deorbited another 358.

Satellite disposal is handled much differently in low-Earth orbits. Upon deorbiting, Starlink satellites burn up when they reenter the atmosphere. When they’re still operating, the satellites perform collision-avoidance maneuvers to prevent crashes and limit space debris.

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