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FCC Takes First Space Debris Enforcement Action

FCC Building. Credit: FCC

Ibadan, 4 October 2023 – The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s Enforcement Bureau has announced a settlement of its investigation into DISH for failure to properly deorbit its EchoStar-7 satellite. This consequently marks a first in space debris enforcement by the Commission. The settlement includes an admission of liability from the company and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan and pay a penalty of $150,000.

The FCC’s investigation found that the company violated the Communications Act, the FCC rules, and the terms of the company’s license. This was because DISH relocated its direct broadcast satellite (“DBS”) service EchoStar-7 satellite at its end-of-mission to a disposal orbit well below the elevation required by the terms of its license. As a result, this lower altitude became an orbital debris concern.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” said Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A. Egal. “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 committed to bringing the EchoStar satellite at the end of its mission to an altitude of 300 kilometres (km) above its operational
geostationary arc in 2012. Furthermore, it estimated, through subsequent filings with the FCC, that based on the remaining fuel and projected operational parameters, the satellite’s end-of-mission deorbit maneuvers would take place in May 2022.

However, in February 2022, DISH determined that the satellite had very little propellant left, ultimately retiring the satellite at a disposal orbit approximately 122 km above the geostationary arc. This was subsequently deemed well short of the disposal orbit of 300 km it specified in its orbital debris mitigation plan.

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