This concerns the EchoStar-7 satellite of the communications company DISH. The US Federal Communications Service (DCC) said that the company will be fined $150,000. It was agreed that DISH would send the satellite to a “graveyard” in space at the end of its life to prevent it from posing a danger to other satellites. But this didn’t work.
“These types of geostationary satellites are located at very high altitudes, around 36,000 kilometers above the Earth,” says Marco Langbroek, lecturer in space situational awareness at TU Delft. “When such a satellite reaches the end of its life, the company plans to move it to a slightly higher orbit, at an altitude of at least 300 kilometers.”
Since geostationary satellites are always at a very specific altitude to orbit the Earth precisely within 24 hours, there are no active satellites to be found within a few hundred kilometers above that. Of those 300 kilometers, there is a kind of rotating space junk graveyard.
“A satellite that ends up there will never end up with operational satellites again,” Langbroek says. In the case of EchoStar-7, it didn’t go so well: the satellite was sent to an altitude of only 122 kilometers, so it didn’t end up in that graveyard. “There wasn’t enough fuel on board to get there,” says Rob van den Berg, a space expert at the Sonnenburg Observatory in Utrecht.
Fuel is also needed during the life of the satellite to make corrections, so the amount of fuel required must be carefully calculated. “You can’t just check how much fuel is left in the tank,” says van den Berg.
There are also satellites located in lower orbit. “After their lifespan is over, they have to be reduced so they can burn up in the atmosphere,” says Langbroek. “The remains could also end up in the South Pacific. Then they wouldn’t be cremated.”
So what exactly is that clutter stuck in the room? Of course, there is space debris, such as comet grains, van den Berg explains. But also space debris that comes from humans. “There’s a lot of floating stuff. A good example is the tool bag that an astronaut lost.” Astronaut wanted at that time Repair damage to the space station.
But there are also more common examples. “Like part of a rocket that was used during launch, or a malfunctioning or malfunctioning satellite, but also parts of satellites that are sometimes caused by collisions. Sometimes the piece of debris is only a few millimeters in size, sometimes more than ten metres,” Langbroek said.
Space debris larger than 10 centimeters can be seen on radar. Van den Berg: “That means about 30,000 to 40,000 objects. For example, you sometimes read that the International Space Station has to divert its course as a result.” But there are many particles that we cannot see from Earth. “For example, there are stars in the windows of the International Space Station due to paint chips moving at high speeds.”
The space expert says that this in itself is not a reason for panic, because the International Space Station has many windows and adequate safety procedures. But space debris can be even more destructive than that. For example, in 2009, two satellites collided. “In the event of a collision, you get a kind of avalanche of all kinds of small particles. The velocities of those particles are so high that even a small screw can cause big problems if it hits the satellite.”
Such a collision could also create new space debris. “There is a fear of what is called Kessler syndrome,” says Langbroek. “This is a kind of chain reaction scenario of collisions. Collisions create debris, and more debris means more collisions. And so on.”
What’s more, all that debris gets in the way of new launches, van den Berg says. “The doomsday scenario is that in about twenty years it will not be possible to launch it without risk. It will become very dangerous.”
It’s a fast-growing problem. “There are now thousands of satellites, and it is almost impossible to track them. Some of these satellites are no longer working.”
Langbroek therefore finds it interesting to see that the United States is taking tougher action against space debris. “It shows that governments are finally taking action against companies that don’t take things seriously, and that the space debris problem is being taken seriously. That’s a good thing.”
Warning to other companies
Van den Berg also believes that fines for space debris are good news: “It’s also a warning to other companies. You want it to no longer be socially acceptable to do nothing about it.”
Meanwhile, work is also underway on a way to clean up space debris, such as satellites that could drag space debris with them. We previously made this video about one of these initiatives: Clean Space.
Tanja Masson Zwaan of the Institute of Air and Space Law at Leiden University also sees the symbolic importance of the fine. “It’s a signal from the government that says: ‘We’re going to take this seriously,’” she says. “At the end of the day, the risk of collisions is increasing.” “Don’t leave your car on the side of the road if it breaks down.”
Mason explains that there are no binding global rules requiring countries to “clean up” their space debris. “But the International Space Treaty says that you may not disrupt the activities of other parties in space. So you could say that leaving space debris behind can cause disruption as well.” Furthermore, as a country it could be held liable if an inactive satellite from that country causes a collision.
The Outer Space Treaty is more than fifty years old. There are also more recent examples of measures and guidelines that have been agreed upon to prevent space debris. “And this fine now is also great: countries seem to be taking space debris more and more seriously.” This is increasingly necessary, Mason says. “It is becoming increasingly crowded, and the battle for space in space is becoming increasingly important.”
Therefore, there are no clean-up obligations globally, and this fine was issued by a US federal agency, but Mason does not rule out the possibility of fines also being issued in other countries in the future. This may also be possible in the Netherlands, for example. “This depends on the conditions imposed on the permit.”
You need such a permit to operate the satellite. “Also in the Netherlands, to get a permit, you have to be able to prove that you have a plan for the moment the satellite stops working.”
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