The fine the United States issued Dish Network in October for failing to move an old satellite out of harm’s way before running out of fuel was the first and, so far, only enforcement action of this kind.

While $150,000 equates to a slap on the wrist for the TV broadcaster now owned by EchoStar — together, they made $17 billion in revenue in 2023 — the FCC’s penalty also included multiple debris safety orders, such as developing ways to track propellant reserves.

Loyaan Egal, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau Chief, said the action underlined its “strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

The FCC tends to keep enforcement matters quiet until finalized, and declined to address questions about other investigations that may be in the works.

According to Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, a widespread reliance on manual data entry and clunky spreadsheets to monitor non-compliant objects is hindering enforcement efforts. A growing flood of satellites entering orbit will make this even more difficult.

Jah is one of the co-founders of Privateer, a space situational awareness specialist with a visualization tool called Wayfinder that pools data on objects orbiting Earth from satellite operators, the U.S. Space Command and other sources.

Wayfinder is based on ASTRIAGraph, an online application Jah runs as a research endeavor using Neo4j graph database technology.

Before funding dried up a few years ago, Jah sought to feed ASTRIAGraph’s semantic network with data for charting objects defying various internationally recognized guidelines, including geostationary satellites such as Dish’s EchoStar-7 that were not retired properly.

Other parameters built into the system identified satellites straying too far from an orbital slot allotted by the International Telecommunication Union, an arm of the United Nations. Satellites yet to be filed with the UN’s Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space were also deemed non-compliant, although there’s no firm deadline for contributing to this catalog.

“The main infraction [companies] are definitely in the U.S., China, Russia,” he said, but the work stopped short of getting into which specific operators are non-compliant.

A name-and-shame list would bring more public attention to a worsening space pollution issue, he added, potentially helping drive the addition of concrete enforcement mechanisms to guidelines.

But Jah said he found governments unwilling to fund an autonomous, near real-time representation of space polluters when “they’re probably part of the problem.”

Venture capitalists had also not seen the business case.

However, the nearly $57 million Privateer raised in May from its Series A round could help revive these efforts.

Although Privateer announced alongside the funding that it had bought analytics firm Orbital Insight for an undisclosed sum, adding Earth imagery and intelligence services to its business, Jah said this would not detract from the group’s space sustainability ambitions.

He said Privateer is now weeks away from publicly deploying an ITU Compliance Assessment Monitor with Wayfinder to identify satellites that have strayed from their orbital slots.

Semantic networking tools have made great strides over the past decade, and advances in large-language models promise to significantly improve their ability to piece together disparate datasets into something a space enforcer could use. But the right tools are only part of the equation.

David Meza, head of analytics for human capital at NASA, is using similar tools to identify the potential skill gaps the agency has to get back to the Moon and on to Mars.

“Any problem that we have, any problems that I’ve worked on over the years — anything that I’ve tried to solve, it all comes down to the data,” Meza said.

“If we don’t have the data in the right format or the right way, or even sufficient data, we can’t do the analysis or the modeling or the graphs.”

The trouble is much of what gets sent to orbit is highly proprietary, and not everyone is comfortable being part of a global public database.

And while the FCC has made a landmark foray into space junk enforcement, it’s unclear how it and other regulators would translate greater visibility into non-compliant objects into action.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...