FCC fines Dish’s EchoStar over satellite debris
October 3, 2023
By Chris Forrester
Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network has been fined by the FCC for not placing its EchoStar-7 craft in a correct ‘graveyard’ orbit. This is the first time that the FCC has penalised an operator under its space debris enforcement rules. The FCC says that Dish/EchoStar had “violated” its Communications Act.
EchoStar 7 was launched in 2002 and operated from 119 degrees West and transmitted pay-TV channels to Dish Network subscribers. It had a planned lifetime of 12 years, and had been ‘retired’ by the broadcaster in May last year.
The normal pattern for a large geostationary satellite once it reaches its end-of-life is that its orbit is raised to a much higher altitude and a ‘graveyard’ some 300 kms above normal and where it can safely stay and not be a threat to other satellites in the geostationary arc.
However, while enjoying the eight years of revenue-generation and extra operational life evidently the satellite did not have sufficient fuel remaining to correctly raise itself to a safe orbit.
Dish says that it had agreed a mitigation plan in 2012 with the FCC but failed even to achieve that pre-agreed orbit which the FCC complained was “well short” of the disposal orbit. EchoStar 7 was placed at 122 kms above its original orbit and less than half-way to the target ‘graveyard’ position.
The problem was initially reported by the US Space Force tracking division.
“This is a breakthrough settlement,” FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan Egal said in a statement, “making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules. As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,”
The FCC’s fine was just $150,000. Dish Network reported around $200 million in profit during Q2 this year.
Dish Network, in its defence, said: “As the Enforcement Bureau recognises 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.”