A fine imposed for abandoning debris in space, a first

The American Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a fine of $150,000 (approximately €143,000) on Monday, October 2, on Dish Network for abandoning the wreckage of a satellite in an orbit deemed dangerous

A fine imposed for abandoning debris in space, a first

The American Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a fine of $150,000 (approximately €143,000) on Monday, October 2, on Dish Network for abandoning the wreckage of a satellite in an orbit deemed dangerous. Never before has a company in the space sector been blacklisted for such acts.

EchoStar-7, the subject of the crime, was placed in geostationary orbit (at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers) in 2002. Ten years later, as part of a plan to combat space pollution, Dish Network accepted that the high-resolution broadcast satellite, once decommissioned, would be propelled 300 kilometers higher, where the risk of collision with other still-active spacecraft is lower, but the firm realized last year that its reserves of fuel were insufficient to reach this “graveyard orbit”. EchoStar-7 was only able to rise 122 kilometers above its operational trajectory, which justified the sanction imposed by the FCC.

“This is a first in the application of legislation on space debris,” underlines the independent agency in the press release announcing its decision. “As satellite operations become more widespread and the space economy accelerates, we must ensure that operators meet their commitments. "This is an important step forward, making it clear that the FCC has the authority and means to enforce its vital space debris rules," she added.

Dish Network, which agreed to pay the fine as part of an out-of-court settlement, said it “takes its responsibilities seriously as an FCC licensee.”

Since the start of the space age, which began in 1957 with Sputnik-1, nearly 16,000 satellites have been launched. As of today, 10,590 are still in space, and just under 2,000 are out of commission, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). With the development of Starlink or Kuiper, the satellite constellations of SpaceX and Amazon, their number could reach 40,000 by 2030, which will increase the risk of collision - Starlink alone must ultimately not count fewer than 42,000 satellites.

The ESA has already counted 640 cases of “ruptures, explosions, collisions or abnormal events leading to fragmentation”. As for the debris, she identified 36,000 of them measuring more than 10 centimeters, of which 5,000 were inactive satellites. The smallest objects, less than a centimeter or even a millimeter, are estimated at 130 million.

“The doors to space may well close.”

“Explosions in orbit are the largest current contributor to the space debris problem; they are caused by leftover fuel and batteries on board satellites or launchers. Despite measures put in place for years to prevent these explosions, we are not seeing any slowdown in the frequency of these events. The trend toward making arrangements to deorbit spacecraft at the end of a mission is improving, but slowly,” explains Holger Krag, head of ESA’s space security program on the agency’s website.

The accumulation of debris in orbit is all the more worrying because, whatever its size, it can inflict severe damage, including on manned spacecraft such as the International Space Station (ISS).

Low orbit, between 700 kilometers and 1,100 kilometers, has become “a rotten zone where nothing is going right,” explained Christophe Bonnal, president of the orbital debris committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, last December, interviewed by Le World. An aluminum object with a radius of one millimeter, “is the equivalent of a bowling ball thrown at 100 kilometers per hour. At one centimeter, it's a Renault Laguna traveling at 130 kilometers per hour and, at 10 centimeters, it's a load of 240 kilos of TNT, hence the importance of constantly monitoring their evolution,” he added. . At the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), the dozen people responsible for monitoring nearly 200 satellites recorded three million alerts, or one every fifteen seconds, but only carried out around twenty avoidance maneuvers.

The ISS, which travels at 28,000 kilometers per hour in an orbit between 350 and 400 kilometers, is particularly exposed to the risk of collision. When such a risk is spotted early enough, the orbit can be changed slightly, but, when time is short, the crew must prepare for an emergency departure, which happens about once a year, according to Christophe Bonnal. The capsules on board which the crew reaches the station are not safe either. In April 2021, Thomas Pesquet and the three astronauts who were traveling there aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft were ordered to put their spacesuits back on and return to their seats due to a risk of collision with an “unknown” object. ". The debris in question eventually passed within 28 miles of the capsule, according to NASA.

“If nothing is done,” warns the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), “the doors to space, which is too crowded, could well close and make any trip outside the Earth impossible.”