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First Space Debris Fine Issued

The topic of space debris has become one of the most important issues with regard to the new space economy. As more companies look to establish a foothold in low Earth orbit (LEO), the need to ensure the region beyond Earth’s atmosphere is free of potentially hazardous debris has become a priority. To help prevent additional accumulation of debris, government agencies have started to take a stronger stance against private companies that fail to properly remove or position defunct satellites from orbit.

An example of this is the recent $150,000 fine by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) against Dish Network for failing to properly deorbit their satellite. The satellite TV company’s EchoStar-7 satellite has been in orbit for more than 20 years. However, rather than position the spacecraft into a “graveyard orbit” about 300 km higher after it was no longer operational, Dish placed it at an altitude less than 200 km above its operational orbit, placing other satellites at risk of collision.

Under the FCC’s “anti-space debris rule”, satellite operators are required to change the orbit of inoperable spacecraft to an altitude that will ensure other satellites are not at risk. In this specific case, Dish was required to raise the EchoStar-7’s orbit high enough that it would not threaten other satellites in geostationary orbit. Under the rule, other satellites are required to be lowered to an orbit that will ensure deorbit within a specified timeframe.

space debris around the globe

The space debris field around Earth continues to grow, increasing the need for removal options. Credit: Electro Optic Systems/AFP/Getty Images.

To avoid paying fines to government agencies, many satellite operators are looking for ways to achieve the required orbital changes for spacecraft that may not have enough fuel for the maneuvers. Consequently, removing or repositioning satellites has become a burgeoning business prospect for companies around the world. Motiv Space Systems has been developing robotic and mechanical systems that will play a key role in these endeavors.

Motiv is working with NASA to demonstrate robotic technologies such as xLink, a customizable, modular robotic arm that can be used to capture inoperable satellites. Motiv’s motion controllers and robotic systems will enable a variety of spacecraft to perform the intricate process of attaching to and maneuvering other satellites that cannot move due to lack of fuel or communications. Once a spacecraft has been captured robotically, its orbit can be changed, positioning it at an altitude that does not threaten other satellites.

Robotic in-orbit satellite servicing concepts.

Robotic in-orbit satellite servicing concepts. Credit: DARPA.

Although removing satellites from orbits that may be hazardous to other spacecraft is important, being able to repurpose spacecraft to perform other missions is another option that Motiv is helping to pursue. Using robotic technology developed by Motiv, companies will be able to service spacecraft, swapping out components or adding new capabilities. For most defunct satellites in Earth orbit, the structure of the spacecraft is in good condition. By replacing communications equipment or onboard sensors with new hardware, or adding new fuel, these satellites can continue to operate, meaning new spacecraft do not need to be launched.

Addressing the challenges operational satellites face in LEO due to space debris has become more important as the new space economy continues to grow. Many spacecraft operators are looking for solutions to service or reposition their assets robotically, something Motiv is working to enable. While governments around the world have begun to impose fines on companies for improper asset disposal, the path toward cleaning up the cloud of debris will include the robotic engineering technology developed by Motiv and applied by companies across the globe.

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