space junk
Around one million pieces of debris larger than a centimeter - big enough to "disable a spacecraft" - are in Earth's orbit Image Credit: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON: US authorities have issued a "breakthrough" first-ever fine over space debris, officials said Monday, slapping a $150,000 penalty on a TV company that failed to properly dispose of a satellite.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came down on Dish for "failure to properly deorbit" a satellite called EchoStar-7, in orbit since 2002.

"This marks a first in space debris enforcement by the Commission, which has stepped up its satellite policy efforts," the FCC, which authorizes space-based telecom services, said in a statement.

As the geostationary satellite came to the end of its operational life, Dish had moved it to an altitude lower than the two parties had agreed on, where it "could pose orbital debris concerns," the FCC said.

The commission said Dish pledged in 2012 to elevate the satellite to 300 kilometers (190 miles) above its operational arc.

But with fuel running low, it retired the satellite at an altitude just over 120 km above the original arc.

"As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments," said FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan A. Egal.

"This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules."

The FCC said: "The settlement includes an admission of liability from the company and an agreement to adhere to a compliance plan and pay a penalty of $150,000."

Dish did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The European Space Agency estimates that around one million pieces of debris larger than a centimeter - big enough to "disable a spacecraft" - are in Earth's orbit.

They are already causing problems, from a near-miss in January last year involving a Chinese satellite, to a five-millimetre hole knocked into a robotic arm on the International Space Station in 2021.

With satellites now crucial for GPS, broadband and banking data, collisions pose significant risks on Earth.