Action Against Cosmic Clutter: US Issues First Fine for Space Junk

Littering is a big problem here on Earth, but how long is it going to be before we need to undertake galactic cleanups? Not long, apparently, as the US government has issued its first-ever fine to a company for leaving space junk orbiting Earth.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Dish Network $150,000 (£125,000) for failing to properly move and de-orbit its EchoStar-7 satellite, the BBC reports..

Space Junk Crackdown

Space junk, officially known as space debris, is made up of bits of tech that are in orbit around the Earth but are no longer in use, and risk collisions. It typically includes things like old satellites and parts of spacecraft.

Dish Network admitted liability over its EchoStar-7 satellite and agreed to a “compliance plan” with the FCC. The FCC said that Dish’s satellite “could pose orbital debris concerns” to other satellites orbiting the Earth at its current altitude.

First launched in 2002, Dish’s EchoStar-7 was in geostationary orbit, which starts at 22,000 miles above the surface of Earth.

Dish was meant to move the satellite 186 miles further from Earth, but at the end of its life in 2022 had moved it only 76 miles after it lost fuel.

In regards to this, FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan 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.”

“The more things we have in orbit, the more risk”

Although the $150,000 fine represents a tiny proportion of Dish’s overall revenue, it still serves as a poignant reminder of how ensuring no space junk is left cluttering space is becoming a bigger priority.

“The more things we have in orbit, the more risk there is of collisions, causing high-speed debris,” said Dr Megan Argo, senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire.

“[This could] go on and potentially hit other satellites, causing yet more debris and potentially cause a cascade reaction.”

It is estimated that more than 10,000 satellites have been launched into space since the first one in 1957, with over half of them now out of use.

According to Nasa, there are more than 25,000 pieces of space debris measuring over 10cm long.

Nasa boss Bill Nelson told the BBC in July that space junk was a “major problem”, which has meant that the International Space Station has had to be moved out of the way of debris flying past.

“Even a paint chip… coming in the wrong direction at orbital speed, which is 17,500 miles an hour [could] hit an astronaut doing a spacewalk. That can be fatal,” he said.