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FCC fines Dish Network $150,000 for leaving retired satellite too low in space

Dish Network left one of its retired satellites floating too low in space and has now been slapped with a fine by federal regulators.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a $150,000 penalty against Dish on Monday, saying the Colorado company didn't properly dispose of its defunct direct broadcast satellite known as EchoStar-7. The Dish settlement marks the first fine ever levied against a company for space debris, FCC officials said.

"As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments," Loyaan Egal, the FCC's enforcement bureau chief, said in a statement. "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 provides television programming to about 17 million customers across its three viewing platforms, according to the company. It employs roughly 14,000 people in the U.S. and generates more than $17 billion in revenue. The publicly traded company also owns Sling TV, which had about 2 million subscribers as of August, as well as video rental brand Blockbuster and cell phone provider Boost Mobile, which has about 7.7 million subscribers. 

Space junk

The U.S. government typically disposes of spacecrafts in one of two ways, according to NASA

One method is by letting a craft run out of fuel and fall back to Earth. During the fall, the craft breaks apart into smaller pieces, most of which burn up upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. Any remaining debris is targeted to land in a space debris junkyard in the Pacific Ocean called Point Nemo

NASA's second method is to push an old spacecraft deeper into space, miles away from Earth's atmosphere, into what's known as junk orbit. 

According to the FCC, Dish was supposed to graveyard their satellite into junk orbit.

Not enough fuel to reach proper disposal distance

Dish launched the EchoStar-7 in 2002. In paperwork it filed with the FCC, the company agreed it would retire the satellite in May 2022 and position it about 300 kilometers above its operational location. In February 2022, however, Dish said the satellite had run out of fuel and wouldn't have enough juice left to lift itself to the 300-kilometer graveyard point, FCC officials said. Dish's satellite ended up 122 kilometers short of where it should have been, the FCC said. 

By not moving its satellite into the proper orbital location for disposal, Dish violated the Communications Act and the agreement it made with the federal government, FCC officials said. 

"As the Enforcement Bureau recognizes in the settlement, the EchoStar-7 satellite was an older spacecraft (launched in 2002) that had been explicitly exempted from the FCC's rule requiring a minimum disposal orbit. Moreover, the Bureau made no specific findings that EchoStar-7 poses any orbital debris safety concerns. Dish has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee," Dish told CBS MoneyWatch.

Space debris is rapidly growing problem as the final frontier becomes more accessible to businesses and entrepreneurs interested in satellite technology and exploration. There is already roughly 6,300 metric tons of debris floating in "near-Earth" orbit, the CEO of GHGsat, a greenhouse gas emissions monitoring company based in Canada, said at the World Economic Forum this year. Members across all sectors of the space industry met there in June to discuss the problem of orbital debris.

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