DISH must pay for bungled orbit change in landmark space debris penalty

FCC wants $150K after EchoStar-7 missed its orbital graveyard

US television provider DISH is facing a $150,000 penalty from the US Federal Communications Commission after one of its satellites was dumped into the wrong orbit at the end of operational life.

The satellite EchoStar-7 was launched in 2002 and placed into a geostationary orbit. The direct broadcast spacecraft spent much of the following two decades beaming content to US receivers before reaching the end.

With plenty of time left, DISH filed its orbital debris mitigation plan for EchoStar-7 with the FCC in 2012. The plan called for the satellite's orbit to be raised 300km, sending the spacecraft into a graveyard orbit.

Things didn't work out quite that way though: In February 2022, DISH determined that the satellite didn't have enough propellant left to reach the required orbit. Instead, it was dumped at 122km above the geostationary arc, less than half the distance promised.

The problem has resulted in a first for the FCC – an enforcement action, including a $150,000 penalty. The agency noted that having been retired to a lower orbit, EchoStar-7 "could pose orbital debris concerns."

The company admitted liability for the issue and agreed to adhere to a compliance plan.

Enforcement Bureau chief Loyaan A Egal said: "As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments.

"This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules."

A DISH spokesperson told The Register: "As the Enforcement Bureau recognizes in the settlement, the EchoStar-7 satellite was an older spacecraft (launched in 2002) that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC's rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit. 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."

The penalty might not seem huge compared to the cost of launching and operating satellites, yet the FCC's tougher stance over space debris is to be welcomed. Although it will do little to address the issue of debris already present, avoiding adding to the risk is a good thing.

Even if all countries and regulators have yet to take the same line. ®

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