FCC's Orbital Debris Fine May Influence Small Space Operator Behavior
Orbital debris experts think the FCC's fining of Dish Network for improper disposal of one of its satellites (see 2310020049) shows the agency getting increasingly serious about orbital debris enforcement. Yet some doubt the fine and threat of more agency enforcement action will have more than a minor effect on how space operators operate. Several saw it a sign that the agency is planting its flag as the orbital debris regulator. Space operators will be much more diligent about tracking their fuel consumption and maybe not try to squeeze quite so much operational life out of their satellites, said Mark Sundahl, director-Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University. He said it could lead to industry standards on fuel consumption. The commission didn't comment.
The $150,000 settlement "was a trivial amount," emailed space lobbyist, consultant and Space Frontier Foundation co-founder Jim Muncy. The commercial space industry has overall "been pretty forward-looking" about complying with regulatory requirements and creating consensus standards and best practices, he said. "That’s good, because (as usual) government hasn’t really figured out what to do about overseeing satellites as spacecraft that are supposed to reenter (in a planned/controlled fashion) or just reenter within some period of time (if they’re broken or out of propellant) or reboost themselves out of key orbits," he said.
Use of earth orbit ultimately needs a consensus regulatory approach where operators can get expedited licensing for best-in-class, and conversely, if they don't comply with minimum standards face fines proportional to the cost of having done the right thing initially, Muncy said.
The enforcement action "was a shot across the bow" for space operators, albeit "a diplomatic one" since it was a negotiated settlement, said Michelle Hanlon, University of Mississippi Center for Air and Space Law executive director. The amount seems low, but it's not clear what considerations went into it, she said. The commission is willing to have discussions now, but as the orbit gets more crowded, the process will likely become more rote, she said.
Don't expect big changes in space operators' behavior due to this FCC posture because industry already acts responsibly, Hanlon said, citing SpaceX talking extensively with astronomers about ways to alleviate Starlink constellation interfering with their observations. Instead, satellite operators might take "a little extra care," she said. The agency's move also could incentivize more interest in active debris remediation and removal, she said.
Space operators will be much more diligent about tracking their fuel consumption and maybe not try to squeeze quite so much operational life out of their satellites, said Mark Sundahl, director-Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University. He said it could lead to industry standards on fuel consumption.
"Certainly this is a message from the FCC," emailed Henry Hertzfeld, George Washington University research professor-space policy and international affairs. "How effective it will be is the question nobody can easily answer. I doubt that the fines alone will deter companies from creating debris, but there are debris mitigation guidelines for both NASA and the DOD that everyone is aware of. And, it is really not in the interest of companies to create debris purposely."
The value of the fine is not in the amount but "about how government can give teeth to their supervision of commercial entities, and that goes well beyond this moment or case," emailed Saadia Pekkanen, University of Washington Space Policy and Research Center founding co-director. "To me, this is an important signal to other stakeholders around the world of how governments can slowly but surely help build responsible behavior in space."
The FCC for years made the mistake of extending satellite licenses without good proof the satellite has enough residual fuel left for disposal, emailed space lawyer Jim Dunstan. Those estimations of fuel left are seemingly difficult to make and "clearly, Dish miscalculated," he said. He said the fine indicates a more muscular posture on orbital debris broadly, and shows the FCC being more serious about end-of-life disposal for geostationary orbit satellites.
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's major questions doctrine and its 2022 West Virginia decision, it remains unclear whether Congress has given the FCC authority over orbital debris, Dunstan said.
More such fines against operators wouldn't be surprising, said Secure World Foundation space law adviser Chris Johnson. Also unsurprising would be other operators taking notice of the fine and deciding to look closely at their end-of-life behavior, he said. Since operators might weigh how costly a fine is versus financial benefits that could be gained from violating rules, the FCC and other regulators will have to consider how they calculate fines, and whether they're a deterrence, he said. Likening such fines to speeding tickets, which can put points on a driving license and raise a driver's insurance costs, Johnson said regulators have regulatory options beyond just the fines themselves, such as consequences when applying for licenses.