In a groundbreaking move, the United States government imposed its inaugural fine on a company for contributing to the growing issue of space junk orbiting Earth. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied a fine of US$150,000 (£125,000) against Dish Network for neglecting to reposition its old satellite, EchoStar-7, a move necessary to prevent potential collisions with operational satellites.

Space junk, comprised of defunct satellites and spacecraft components, poses a significant risk in Earth’s orbit, where collisions could generate high-speed debris, creating a dangerous domino effect. Despite being a minuscule fraction of Dish’s US$16.7 billion 2022 revenue, the fine underscores the FCC’s commitment to enforcing vital space debris rules. Dish Network admitted liability over EchoStar-7, which was launched in 2002 and was supposed to be moved 186 miles further from Earth. However, the company only managed to shift it 76 miles before it ran out of fuel in 2022.

Dr. Megan Argo, a senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire, emphasized the importance of this move in the industry. She noted that the FCC’s regulatory action is likely to prompt other satellite operators to adhere strictly to space debris regulations, given the escalating risks associated with excessive orbital debris.

The challenge of space debris has intensified as the number of satellites has grown, raising concerns about potential collisions. NASA estimates that over 10,000 satellites have been launched into space since 1957, with more than half of them now defunct. Additionally, there are over 25,000 pieces of space debris measuring over 10cm long, further highlighting the urgency of addressing this issue. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson emphasized the gravity of the problem, highlighting the need to protect astronauts and vital space infrastructure from potential collisions with even minor debris traveling at orbital speeds of 17,500 miles per hour.