Man-made and naturally occurring orbital debris circling the Earth at speeds of 22,000 mph present the "number one threat" to spacecraft and astronauts, scientists say. Illustration courtesy of NASA
Oct. 2 (UPI) -- The Federal Communications Commission on Monday announced a legal settlement with DISH Network, marking its first enforcement action in tackling escalating levels of orbital space debris.
Under the settlement, DISH has agreed to pay a penalty of $150,000 and "adhere to a compliance plan" after admitting liability for not properly disposing of its EchoStar-7 satellite after the end of its mission, the FCC announced.
The agency said that rather than boosting the spent satellite 186 miles above its operational geostationary arc as required, DISH instead only sent it 76 miles higher -- "well short" of what was required to push the craft above and beyond the ever-growing field of orbital junk now circling the planet.
The enforcement action represents a landmark in U.S. efforts to seriously address the problem of space debris, said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan Egal.
"As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments," Egal said. "This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules."
DISH launched EchoStar-7 in 2002 and promised 10 years later to boost it 186 miles above its geostationary orbit by May 2022, when it estimated the satellite would run out of fuel. However, in February 2022 the company reported it there was not enough propellent left to carry out the planned maneuver, the FCC said.
Last year the agency adopted new rules requiring satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within five years of completing their missions, significantly shortening the long-held 25-year guideline for "deorbiting" satellites post-mission.
Officials said that as of the end of 2021 there were more than 4,800 satellites operating in orbit, with the vast majority of those being commercial low-Earth orbit satellites. The new 5-year rule for deorbiting those satellites, they said, "will mean more accountability and less risk of costly collisions that increase debris."
NASA calls the spent rockets, satellites and other space trash left over from previous missions "the number one threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts," warning that collisions with such junk can pit or damage spacecraft in the best case scenario and cause catastrophic failures in the worst.
Debris orbits around the Earth at hypervelocity speeds of 22,000 mph, at which a collision with a 10-centimeter particle would create as much force as 7 kilograms of TNT.
Even worse, under what is known as the "Kessler Syndrome," collisions with space debris create more debris, in turn creating a runaway chain reaction of collisions and yet more debris.