TechA "fine" for space garbage? First time in history

A "fine" for space garbage? First time in history

Space debris is a serious threat.
Space debris is a serious threat.
Images source: © Getty Images | dottedhippo
11:21 AM EDT, October 4, 2023, updated: 8:58 AM EDT, October 5, 2023

People not only pollute the Earth. Traces of their activities can also be observed in outer space, where more and more objects are appearing that do not fulfill their assigned tasks. Examples are remnants of rockets or even defunct satellites. Interestingly, littering in space can also be punished, as recently experienced by the American satellite television operator DISH.

The DISH company was fined with a "cosmic ticket," or rather, a penalty of $150,000. This is the result of a decision made by the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which found after a conducted investigation that DISH violated the terms of its license, placing the satellite at a higher altitude than agreed, and did not properly deorbit it. DISH and the FCC reached a settlement on this matter, and the company admitted its guilt. This is the first time in history that the FCC has imposed such a penalty.

The DISH company was penalized for space junk

"This is the first case of enforcing the law concerning space debris by the Commission, which has intensified efforts in the field of satellite policy," emphasized the FCC in a press release.

The Cybernews service explains that the American satellite TV operator received a license from the FCC, which required him to "place the EchoStar-7 satellite at a height of 185 miles above its operational geostationary orbit. In the meantime, the company deorbited its spacecraft 75 miles above the operational orbit". According to DISH, this was due to an insufficient amount of fuel in the satellite, needed to complete the desired maneuver.

In a statement sent to the media, the operator also noted that the FCC did not claim that the satellite "poses any concerns regarding orbital debris safety" and stated that the company has "extensive experience in safely flying a large fleet of satellites and takes its obligations as an FCC licensee seriously".

Space debris, especially those that reenter Earth's atmosphere, pose a real threat to us and our planet, as experts constantly remind us. They can fall to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, causing a lot of damage. Good examples include a fragment of the Tiangong-1 spacecraft weighing 17000 lbs, which fell in 2018; a fragment of Tiangong-2, which fell to Earth in July 2019; or several tons of debris from the Chinese Long March 5B rocket, which landed in the Indian Ocean in late July 2022.

One must also remember that space debris poses a danger to active satellites in Earth orbit, as well as other objects, including astronauts. The International Space Station (ISS) has had to execute maneuvers multiple times to avoid colliding with this debris. Their size, coupled with the speed at which they move, creates a perilous combination. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that Earth's orbit currently contains:

  • 29,000 pieces of space debris larger than 4 inch,
  • 670,000 pieces of space debris larger than 0,4 inch,
  • 170 million pieces of space debris larger than 0,04 inch.

ESA explains that each of these objects could damage an operational spacecraft. As can be read on the organization's official website: "for example, a collision with a 10-centimeter object would cause catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1-centimeter object would most likely immobilize a spacecraft and pierce the shields of the ISS, and a 1-millimeter object could destroy subsystems on board a spacecraft".

Related content