Dish Network: the US government issues first-ever space debris penalty after it fails to 'properly de-orbit'

The company launched its satellite in 2002
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The US government has fined a company for leaving junk in space.

Dish Network has to pay $150,000 (£124,000) to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for violating the anti-space debris rule by failing to properly de-orbit its EchoStar-7 satellite.

The satellite had been in orbit for more than two decades, and instead of properly de-orbiting the satellite, Dish sent it into a “disposal orbit” at an altitude low enough to pose an orbital debris risk.

A general view of the Dish Network booth is seen at the 2013 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 9, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Image: David Becker/Getty Images)A general view of the Dish Network booth is seen at the 2013 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 9, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Image: David Becker/Getty Images)
A general view of the Dish Network booth is seen at the 2013 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 9, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Image: David Becker/Getty Images)

The satellite TV provider admitted liability, the commission said, adding that the action by DISH "could pose orbital debris concerns".

Enforcement bureau chief Loyaan A Egal, in the statement announcing the Dish settlement 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.”

Dish first launched the EchoStar-7 satellite in 2002 and planned to remove it from service in May 2022, CNBC reports.

The satellite was launched into geostationary orbit – a field of space that begins 22,000 miles (36,000km) above Earth.

However, Dish found out the satellite did not have enough fuel remaining to navigate to a disposal location.

The company had previously agreed to an "orbital debris mitigation plan" with the FCC to relocate the satellite, but only retired it 122km away from where it was operating - the agreed space was 300km away.

The FCC described this as "well short of the disposal orbit".

The FCC adopted a new "five-year rule" for de-orbiting satellites which forces operators with satellites in low orbit to ensure satellites are disposed of within half a decade of completing their missions.

The previous limit was 25 years. “Right now there are thousands of metric tons of orbital debris in the air above – and it is going to grow,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a 2022 statement that accompanied the announcement of the rule. “We need to address it. Because if we don’t, this space junk could constrain new opportunities.”

James Blake, Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Space Domain Awareness, said: "This is an important step for space debris mitigation. Guidelines need to be enforced if they are to act as a deterrent to spacecraft operators. The geostationary belt is a vital (and finite) resource, and failure to reach a safe disposal orbit can put the active satellites we rely on at risk."

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