Turns out the government can fine you for trashing space

A trash can in space.
Even in orbit, no dumping rules apply. | PM Images/Getty Images

The FCC is cracking down on space litterbugs, starting with Dish Network.

We are surrounded by trash, and the Federal Communications Commission is trying to do something about it.

Since we’re talking about the FCC, which regulates communications and airwaves, we’re not talking about the more well-known trash in the oceans and on the ground. This is the garbage way, way up in the sky: space debris, an ever-increasing problem thanks to all of the things we shoot up into the air, much of which won’t come back down anytime soon. Included in this category — and under the FCC’s purview — are communications satellites.

The FCC doled out a first-of-its-kind fine to Dish Network for failing to uphold a debris mitigation plan for its EchoStar-7 satellite. Dish will now pay $150,000 and implement various measures to ensure that its other satellites don’t meet the same fate. The penalty may be a sign of things to come, both the increased scrutiny from the FCC and the need for it, due to the rapidly growing amount of space debris up there.

FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Loyaan A. Egal heralded the move as a “breakthrough,” saying in a statement that it made “very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

This comes a few months after the agency established a dedicated Space Bureau charged with overseeing space-based communications. Previously, this was done by an International Bureau, which has now been split into the Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs. It also comes as satellites have become a more viable and common means of accessing the internet, thanks in part to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which brought high-speed, lower-latency internet to the most remote locations in the world and the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine. With its network of thousands of small satellites in low orbit, it’s also brought concerns about light pollution, crowding, and trash.

As orbits get more crowded with junk that can’t be controlled or moved out of the way, it becomes more likely that this debris will collide with stuff that isn’t trash. As Vox’s Rebecca Heilweil noted in 2021 after Russia shot down an old satellite with a missile, spreading debris everywhere:

These shards are spinning at incredibly fast speeds and risk hitting active satellites that power critical technologies, like GPS navigation and weather forecasting. Space debris like this is actually so dangerous that national security officials are worried it could be used as a weapon in a future space war. …

These risks have only heightened concerns that we’re far from solving the space junk problem, especially as private companies and foreign governments launch thousands of new satellites into orbit — inevitably creating even more space junk.

It’s estimated that there were at least 100 million pieces of space debris larger than a millimeter surrounding the Earth. There are far fewer ways to clean it up. While the area around the Earth is vast, making collisions unlikely for now, it’s only getting more crowded up there, especially in the lower orbits that Starlink satellites occupy, which also have less free space.

But notably, the FCC’s first space debris enforcement action wasn’t taken against SpaceX, the company that belongs to notoriously rule-flouting Musk, but an older company with older satellite technology. The Dish satellite in question was launched in 2002, and the debris mitigation plan dates back to 2012. The satellite reached the end of its life last year, and the plan was to use its last remaining fuel to move 300 kilometers, or about 190 miles, above its current orbit. But Dish miscalculated how much fuel was left and was only able to get the satellite 122 kilometers, or a piddly 75 miles, above that orbit.

Dish’s satellite differs from Starlink’s much newer satellites in several ways. First of all, it’s a lot bigger: The EchoStar-7 weighed just over 9,000 pounds at launch, while Starlink satellites weigh between 575 and 1,750 pounds. The EchoStar’s 20-year life span is also longer. Starlink satellites average about five to seven years, after which they’re moved into the atmosphere to burn up into very small particles, which hopefully isn’t dangerous to us but about which scientific research is lacking.

Different types of satellites also have very different orbits. Starlink satellites create an interconnected web over the Earth in a relatively low orbit about 350 miles above us. That means the time it takes to send signals between them and the planet is shorter, allowing for low latency times. Dish’s satellites are much higher up — 22,000 miles above Earth — and move with the rotation of the planet to stay in the same spot at all times.

All this means that Dish only needs a few satellites to cover one area, but the latency time is too long to support streaming, gaming, and video conferencing (this particular satellite was for TV broadcasting). That also puts them too high up to simply steer themselves down into the atmosphere to burn up like Starlink’s satellites. Instead, they move up into a “graveyard orbit,” out of the path of functional satellites, where they’re left to float around in space for hundreds of years.

With the FCC ready, willing, and able to regulate the inner and outer reaches of space, Starlink may well be heading for a collision of its own. Not with space junk, but with a government agency and regulations. Those are two things Elon Musk doesn’t care for (unless he’s getting a subsidy that keeps his business afloat), so it will be interesting to see just how closely Starlink followed the agreements it made with the FCC to be allowed to throw thousands of satellites into the sky.

Dish told Vox in a statement that the FCC did not find that its satellite “poses any orbital debris safety concerns,” adding that it “has a long track record of safely flying a large satellite fleet and takes seriously its responsibilities as an FCC licensee.”

As for that $150,000 penalty, while it may be the first of its kind, it’s also peanuts to Dish, which had a net income of nearly $1 billion in 2022.

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