The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a press release on October 3rd 2023 describing the first time they have fined a satellite operator for failing to properly de-orbit one of their old satellites.  The fine might be small, but this is the first time they’ve used their regulatory powers to issue such a fine and so is a significant moment for the space sector.

We’re used to thinking of space as a big place, with distances dwarfing those we are used to on the Earth.  But Earth orbit is a finite resource.  Just as you can only fit so many cars on a motorway such as the M25, you can only put so many satellites into orbit before you risk collisions.

Since Sputnik 1 in 1957, humans have launched more than 15,000 objects into orbit.  Today, less than half that number are still operational.  Some defunct satellites have returned to Earth, many have burned up in the atmosphere, but a significant number are still in orbit many years, sometimes many decades, after they ceased operations.  

The debris problem

Active satellites are one thing, but decommissioned (or malfunctioning) satellites are quite another.  Once out of fuel, or uncontactable by ground stations, defunct satellites become nothing more than heavy, fast-moving, uncontrollable, dangerous projectiles.

Accidental collisions have happened, several times in fact, involving operational satellites, non-operational satellites, or mission-related debris (including parts of spent launch vehicles).  Debris has also been created accidentally through satellite break-up, and deliberately via anti-satellite weapons tests by various states, most recently in 2021 where the resulting debris threatened the safety of the International Space Station and the astronauts on board.

How much space junk is up there?  NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office monitors and tracks space debris and estimates that there are approximately 500,000 marble-size fragments, and over 100,000,000 objects of 1mm or less in Earth orbit.  Even tiny fragments of material can do significant damage when moving at typical orbital speeds of several kilometres per second.  More debris makes space more hazardous for all operators.

Decommissioning satellites

With so much orbital debris, the question of how to deal with decommissioned satellites becomes vital for the sustainable use of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the long-term viability of space-based activities.  Guidelines exist in many parts of the world (for example the European Space Agency has an office with a remit for space safety and requirements for their own satellites), but global standards (and enforcement of those standards) is not easy.

Satellites in LEO can be disposed of by giving them a nudge that sends them towards the atmosphere.  The drag provided by even the rarefied environment at the top of the atmosphere is enough to cause a satellite re-entry. 

Most satellites will burn up during their fiery descent, resulting in no debris hitting the ground, but creates a cloud of chemicals from disintegrating metal, electronic components, solar panels and batteries that slowly disperses in the air.  With many more satellites ending their operational lives this way, the long-term viability of dumping all this material in the atmosphere also needs to be considered.

Larger satellites do result in some debris making it through the atmosphere. Back in 1979 the Skylab space station broke up in the atmosphere, scattering debris across southern Western Australia centred on the small community of Balladonia. The local council issued NASA with a fine for littering. More recently, the launches of more than one segment of the Chinese space station in 2021 and 2022, resulted in 18-tonne rocket bodies re-entering the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner, scattering debris over large areas.

Satellites in geostationary orbits are much higher above the surface of the Earth.  Bringing them down in the same way as satellites in LEO would require significant fuel for the necessary change in velocity (known as delta-v), as well as presenting the hazard of crossing the orbits of satellites operating at lower altitudes.  More often, defunct satellites in geostationary orbits are disposed of by sending them further out, requiring a much smaller delta-v and less fuel, into what is known as a disposal orbit, some 300km further up.

What happened with EchoStar-7

The subject of the FCC fine, Echostar-7 was a geostationary satellite operated by Dish Network, used to provide television services to the United States.  It had a mass of just under 2000 kg, excluding propellant, and spent its operational lifetime in geostationary orbit, some 36,000km above the surface of the Earth.  Launched in 2002, it was originally planned to operate for 12 years but was given a license extension in 2012 taking its operations through to May 2022 when it was expected to transfer to a disposal orbit.

However, in February 2022 the satellite operator, Dish Network, determined that the satellite has less propellant remaining than it should have.  Without enough propellant remaining on board, reaching the required altitude for the safe disposal orbit was no longer possible.  In the end, the satellite only reached an altitude 122km above the geostationary position, far short of the intended orbit required in their orbital debris mitigation plan.

So what?

Why does this matter?  With so many satellites in space, and the number increasing rapidly thanks to the advent of large constellations of satellites being launched by companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, Kuiper (due to launch their first satellite this week) and others, the risks of a catastrophic collision increase all the time.  The risks are greater with defunct or uncontrollable satellites as they are unable to be moved to avoid a collision.  Failing to reach the 300km mark means that the satellite could become a significant hazard for operational satellites in geostationary orbit.

Satellites orbit at high velocity, travelling several kilometres per second.  When they collide the resulting debris also travels incredibly fast in many directions.  Fast-moving debris has a lot of energy and any impact with another satellite, functional or not, will result in yet more fast-moving debris.  Because of the significant risks this poses, companies launching satellites must take steps to ensure the safe and responsible disposal of them when they reach the end of their operational lifetime.

While many countries and space programmes have their own voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct for satellite operators, this is the first case of such an operator being fined by a regulator for breaching licence conditions relating to disposal, a significant moment for the rapidly developing commercial space sector.

The risks are significant.  Debris can damage and destroy other satellites, taking out vital communications infrastructure.  Astronauts on board the International Space Station regularly have to perform manoeuvres to avoid either debris or active satellites that come within safely limits.  Satellite operators themselves are increasingly having to undertake collision avoidance manoeuvres because of other functional and non-functional satellites.  

The modern world relies heavily on satellite communications.  If enough debris accumulates in Earth orbit it will become difficult, if not impossible, to operate communications networks on which so much of modern life has come to rely, but also to send spacecraft (and potentially humans) out into the solar system. 

The fine is small in this case, just $150,000, but it is a clear signal that the FCC is willing to use its regulatory powers to fine operators who do not take seriously their responsibilities to the sustainable use of Earth orbit.  

It is worth remembering that the FCC only has jurisdiction over US-based operators.  To be effective as a deterrent and drive more responsible behaviour globally we need larger fines, and international cooperation between agencies and regulators so that our near-space environment isn’t trashed the same way we have destroyed so many habitats here on the Earth.  

The consequences of not acting would be disastrous for communications, banking, Earth observation, disaster relief, and many other sectors that rely on satellites and their applications.  Now is the time to act.