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US issues first-ever fine for leaving junk in space

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The United States government has issued its first ever fine to a company for leaving space junk orbiting the Earth, BBC reports.

The Federal Communications Commission fined Dish Network $150,000 (£125,000) for failing to move an old satellite far enough away from others in use.

The company admitted it was liable for not shifting its EchoStar-7 to a safer spot and will pay the penalty and implement a compliance plan.

“This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules,” FCC enforcement bureau chief, Loyaan A. Egal, said in a press release.

Space junk is made up bits of tech that are in orbit around the Earth but are no longer in use, and risk collisions.
Officially called space debris, it includes things like old satellites and parts of spacecraft.

The FCC said that Dish’s satellite posed a potential risk to other satellites orbiting the Earth at its current altitude.

Dish’s EchoStar-7 – which was first launched in 2002 – was in geostationary orbit, which starts at 22,000 miles (36,000km) above the Earth’s surface.

Dish was meant to move the satellite 186 miles further from Earth, but at the end of its life in 2022 had moved it only 76 miles after it lost fuel.

“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” Egal said.

The $150,000 fine represents a tiny proportion of Dish’s overall revenue, which was $16.7bn in 2022.

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According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there are more than 25,000 pieces of space debris measuring over 10cm long.

Nasa boss Bill Nelson told the BBC in July that space junk was a “major problem”, which has meant that the International Space Station has had to be moved out of the way of debris flying past.

“Even a paint chip… coming in the wrong direction at orbital speed, which is 17,500 miles an hour [could] hit an astronaut doing a spacewalk. That can be fatal,” he said.

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