US issues first-ever space debris fine to Dish Network

The US Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau has penalised Dish Network a sum of $150,000 (about INR 1.25 cr) for leaving junk in space.  The satellite television provider operates several satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), which is a region of space about 36,000 km above the equator where satellites appear to be stationary relative to the Earth.

EchoStar-7, one of Dish’s many satellites, was launched in 2002 and completed its mission in 2022. As part of its orbital debris mitigation plan, Dish had agreed to move EchoStar-7 to a higher altitude, known as a graveyard orbit, where it would not interfere with other operational satellites in GEO. However, due to a fuel shortage, Dish was only able to raise EchoStar-7 by 122 km, instead of the required 300 km. This meant that EchoStar-7 remained in a disposal orbit that was too close to the active GEO region, posing a potential collision risk.

Although the fine imposed on Dish was relatively small compared to its annual revenue of $16.7 billion in 2022, this marks a precedent and a warning for other companies working in this domain.

KnowALLedge Plus:

>The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the agency that regulates the use of radio frequencies and orbital slots for satellites in the United States. The FCC has a rule that requires satellite operators to dispose of their satellites in a safe and responsible manner at the end of their missions.

>Space debris, also known as orbital debris or space junk, is any artificial object orbiting the Earth that is no longer functional or useful. It includes old satellites, rocket stages, fragments from collisions or explosions, and even paint chips.

>According to NASA, there are more than 25,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm in orbit, traveling at speeds of up to 28,000 km/h. Such high-speed debris could cause severe damage or destruction to active satellites or spacecraft, endangering the lives of astronauts and the functioning of critical services such as communications, navigation, weather forecasting, and scientific research.

>Kessler Syndrome: Proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, the Kessler Syndrome is a theoretical scenario where a cascade of collisions between space debris creates even more debris, making certain orbits around Earth too hazardous for spacecraft.

>Several private companies, in association with government space agencies, are exploring innovative solutions to actively remove space debris. Concepts include nets, harpoons, tethers and laser-based systems to capture and deorbit defunct objects.

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