We’ve just taken a major step toward cleaning up space junk.
On Monday, October 2, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US issued its first fine for space debris, ordering the US TV provider Dish to pay $150,000 for failing to move one of its satellites into a safe orbit.
“It is definitely a very big symbolic moment for debris mitigation,” says Michelle Hanlon, a space lawyer at the University of Mississippi. “It’s a great step in the right direction.”
But it might be more than just a symbolic gesture by the FCC. Not only does it set a precedent for tackling bad actors who leave dangerous junk orbiting Earth, but it could send shock waves through the industry as other satellite operators become wary of having their reputation tarnished. While the $150,000 FCC fine was modest, it still wiped more than 13% off Dish’s share price, pushing the company’s valuation down from nearly $3 billion to $2.6 billion.
The FCC’s action could also help breathe new life into the still-small market for commercial removal of space debris, essentially setting a price—$150,000—for companies such as Astroscale in Japan and ClearSpace in Switzerland to aim for in providing services that use smaller spacecraft to sidle up to dead satellites or rockets and pull them back into the atmosphere.
“It’s a really interesting question about what effect a fine of this magnitude has on a potential market for active debris removal services,” says Christopher Newman, a space lawyer at Northumbria University in the UK. Refueling satellites is also an option; in 2021 the US aerospace company Northrop Grumman refueled a satellite in geostationary orbit to extend its life for the first time.
Earlier this week, Astroscale was commissioned by the Japanese government to remove a dead satellite from orbit. Newman says these debris removal firms have struggled to find paying customers, but the action against Dish by the FCC might change that. “Companies have now been put on notice that they’re going to be liable for noncompliance of licenses,” he says. “So that should stimulate a discussion between these two industries.”
Another hope is that the FCC’s fine will encourage other countries to follow suit with their own enforcement actions on space junk. “It sends a message out of America taking leadership in this area,” says Newman. “This is starting the ball rolling.”
Today there are more than 8,000 active satellites, nearly 2,000 dead satellites, and hundreds of empty rockets orbiting Earth. Managing these objects and preventing collisions is a huge task, and one that is becoming increasingly difficult as the number of satellites grows rapidly. The worsening situation is largely due to mega-constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites from companies like SpaceX and Amazon, designed to beam the internet to any corner of the globe.
“The density of satellites that are all traveling at several kilometers per second is so high,” says Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada. “If there is a collision in orbit, we could lose the ability to use low Earth orbit.”
While there are no formal laws for clearing up space junk in the US or elsewhere, the FCC and other national regulators that approve satellites for launch are starting to adopt guidelines to prevent organizations from cluttering up space. The FCC now has a five-year rule for removing satellites in low Earth orbit—less than 2,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface—after the end of their mission.
For satellites in higher orbits, such removal isn’t always possible. Dish’s satellite, called EchoStar-7 and launched in 2002, was in geostationary orbit, about 35,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface. In 2012, Dish agreed on a plan with the FCC to move its satellite 300 kilometers higher into a so-called “graveyard orbit,” where defunct satellites are left orbiting Earth away from other satellites. However, in 2022 Dish revealed that the satellite only had enough fuel left to reach an orbit of about 122 kilometers, resulting in the settlement negotiated with the FCC.
“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 said in a statement. A Dish spokesperson told MIT Technology Review the company “has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee.” It added that the FCC “made no specific findings that EchoStar-7 poses any orbital debris safety concerns.”
Hanlon does not believe the fine went far enough. However, she says the crucial thing is that Dish admitted liability. If the EchoStar-7 satellite hits another satellite, the company could face further legal action.
Also, an FCC spokesperson told MIT Technology Review the agency could fine space-debris rule breakers more than $150,000 in the future. “This is a penalty set as part of a negotiated settlement,” the spokesperson said. “It is not necessarily indicative of a forfeiture amount.”
Legal action has been taken in space before. In 1978, Canada sued Russia over debris that rained down on its territory from a nuclear-powered satellite, eventually settling on an amount of more than $2 million. In 1979, the Australian town of Esperance jokingly fined NASA $400 after pieces of its Skylab space station fell in the region; a US radio DJ finally paid up in 2009. In 2018, the US startup Swarm Technologies was fined $900,000 by the FCC for launching satellites without permission.
But many incidents remain unresolved. In 2009, an active US satellite from the tech firm Iridium crashed into a dead Russian satellite, exploding into thousands of shards of metal. No settlement was ever reached. And the large number of inactive satellites and empty rockets in orbit today means the risk of further collisions remains high. “That’s a problem,” says Hugh Lewis, a space-debris expert at the University of Southampton. The FCC’s new willingness to take action may mean that satellite operators “have to put plans in place to make sure spacecraft deorbit successfully,” he says.
Hanlon says there are further measures that could be taken to discourage companies from failing to dispose of satellites properly. “Honestly, I would love to see that if you don’t meet your license requirements, you’re banned from launching for a number of years,” she says. “If you’re driving under the influence you can have your license revoked. These are the kinds of measures we need to see.”
Chris Johnson, a space law advisor at the Secure World Foundation in the US, says the loss of reputation for Dish about the satellite situation might be worse than any fine it could have received. “They promised to remove it and they didn’t,” he says. “It’s like the first operator of a car to get a speeding ticket.”
The fall in the company’s share price appears to be indicative of that reputational damage. The fine may not have been as severe as it could have been, but the FCC’s actions can be seen as a warning to other companies to tackle space junk. “This is going to be on their record and their reputation,” says Johnson. “It’s not trivial.”