Improper disposal of solid waste, long a problem plaguing the terrestrial environment, is now occurring in space. The U.S. government has issued its first-ever fine to a private company that left space junk in orbit.

A $150,000 fine was levied by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on satellite television provider DISH for not safely deorbiting its EchoStar-7 satellite. The company originally planned to deorbit the spacecraft in May 2022, but the satellite ran out of fuel, forcing DISH to leave it 100 miles shy of its designated disposal region high above geostationary orbit. In this region, satellites can remain over one fixed spot on Earth.

The FCC issued the fine as part of its efforts to crackdown on irresponsible activity in Earth's orbit. "As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments," FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan A. Egal said in the agency's statement. "This is a breakthrough settlement, making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules."

(See also: The origins of orbital debris)

There are no formal laws for clearing up space junk but the FCC and other national regulators that approve satellites for launch are starting to adopt guidelines to prevent organizations from cluttering up space. The FCC now has a five-year rule for removing satellites in low Earth orbit — less than 2,000 km above the planet’s surface — at the end of their mission.

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