The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued the first-ever fine for failing to properly dispose of space junk.
In 2002, DISH Network launched its EchoStar-7 satellite. Ten years later, it filed a plan with the FCC for decommissioning the satellite at the end of its mission. This plan involved moving the satellite 300 kilometers (186 miles) above its operational orbit, in order to minimize the ever-growing risk of space junk collisions.
DISH had estimated that it would perform the maneuver in May 2022, based on how much fuel it had remaining, and the satellite's operational lifespan. But in February 2022, they realized the satellite did not have enough fuel to take it out to the orbit they had committed to and ended up decommissioning the satellite in an orbit 122 kilometers (76 miles) above its original orbit.
DISH settled with the FCC, admitting liability and agreeing to pay $150,000. We may see more fines in coming years, as low-Earth orbit fills up.
“As satellite operations become more prevalent and the space economy accelerates, we must be certain that operators comply with their commitments,” Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan A. Egal said in a 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.”
Why is the FCC cracking down on this? Well, as mentioned above, low-Earth orbit is filling up, and there have been some fairly hairy incidents in which the International Space Station has had to make maneuvers in order to avoid debris.
One long-term concern about the debris is that it could cause the "Kessler Effect" (or Kessler Syndrome).
Simply put, the Kessler Effect is where a single event (such as an explosion of a satellite) in low-Earth orbit creates a chain reaction as debris destroys other satellites in orbit. Should this happen, the debris could keep colliding with other satellites or other debris, potentially causing communication problems and leaving areas of space inaccessible to spacecraft.
Essentially, it could end up like the film Gravity, but with less George Clooney and more "Hey what happened to my GPS". At worst, some speculate it could essentially trap us here on Earth, unable to leave.