Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, joined U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to introduce the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, a bipartisan bill to establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program to reduce the amount of space junk in orbit.
Space junk, or orbital debris, currently poses a threat to human space exploration, scientific research missions, and emerging commercial space services. In March 2021, a large piece of space junk crashed into a farmer's property in Grant County, Wash.
"There are more than 900,000 pieces of space junk passing over our heads every day, including abandoned Government satellites," said Sen. Cantwell. "This bill will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk before it knocks out a satellite, crashes into a NASA mission, or falls to the ground and hurts someone. We must continue to explore space, and we have to do it safely."
"Our society is reliant on satellites in orbit, yet space junk is a constant, growing threat," said Sen. Hickenlooper, chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science. "Space debris endangers everything from global communications to advanced weather forecasting to human space exploration."
"Space junk is not only dangerous to humans exploring space, it is also a major risk to satellites that people in Wyoming and around the country rely on for basic communication. I'm proud to join my colleagues in introducing the ORBITS Act to kickstart the process of removing debris from orbit," said Sen. Lummis, ranking member of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science.
"The ORBITS Act would address an important aspect of the complex space debris problem, empowering NASA to partner with the U.S. space industry on active debris removal technology to tackle space junk threats. The United States is the world's premier spacefaring nation, and I am pleased to join my colleagues in that effort," said Sen. Wicker.
The program will focus on research, development, and demonstration of technologies capable of safely carrying out successful Active Debris Remediation (ADR) missions and jumpstarting a new market for these services. Washington state companies, including Seattle-based satellite servicer Starfish Space, have advocated for the acceleration of space debris removal efforts. Other Washington companies like SpaceX, Amazon's Kuiper Systems, and Stoke Space Technologies are also looking for new ways to reduce debris from accumulating in space in the first place or have been threatened by debris. More than 1,300 Washington companies are involved in the aerospace industry.
There are approximately 8,000 metric tons of debris currently in orbit, including at least 900,000 individual pieces of debris that are potentially lethal to satellites. Because of the magnitude of the current debris, simply preventing more debris in the future is not enough.
Full text of the ORBITS Act is available HERE.
The Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act contains the following provisions:
Direct NASA, the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce ("OSC"), and the National Space Council to publish a list of debris that pose the greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft;
Establish a NASA program to demonstrate removal of debris from orbit, to accelerate the development of required technologies;
Encourage consistent orbital debris regulations by initiating a multi-agency update to existing orbital debris standards applicable to Government systems; and
Require OSC, with the National Space Council and Federal Communications Commission, to encourage the development of practices for coordinating space traffic, which will help avoid collisions that create debris.