Cantwell, Hickenlooper Bill to Clean Up Space Junk Passes Senate Unanimously

November 1, 2023

ORBITS Act would support technologies to clear the nearly 1 million pieces of dangerous orbital debris that endanger astronauts and satellites

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed 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. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Committee, joined Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) in introducing the bill in February and it passed the Committee in July. It now heads to the House.

“Nearly one million pieces of space junk pass over our heads every day,” Sen. Cantwell said. “The ORBITS Act will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous space junk before it knocks out a scientific satellite, threatens a NASA mission, or falls to the ground and hurts someone.”

“Space junk,” or orbital debris, currently poses a threat to human space exploration, scientific research missions and emerging commercial space services. There are approximately 8,000 metric tons of space junk 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.

Every year, there are cases of space junk falling to Earth. A car-sized object landed in Australia over the summer. In Washington state, a large piece of space junk crashed into a farmer’s property in March 2021. Washington state companies, including Seattle-based satellite servicer Starfish Space, have advocated for the acceleration of space debris removal efforts. Other companies in Washington state, 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.

The ORBITS Act would:

  • Direct the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to publish a list of debris that poses the greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft;
  • Establish a NASA program to demonstrate the 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.

Read the bill text HERE.

Sen. Cantwell has been a champion for Washington state’s space industry and oversees NASA and the space industry as Chair of the Committee. Last year, Sen. Cantwell spearheaded the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, one of the largest five-year federal research and development investments in U.S. history. The law includes the new NASA Authorization, enshrining the NASA Artemis missions to the Moon and eventually Mars in U.S. law. The Artemis program has 42 suppliers in the Washington state. In July, Sen. Cantwell hosted a Washington state space summit with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and talked about how the space industry has more than doubled in four years and supports more than 13,000 jobs, creating $4.6 billion in economic activity in the state. Read more on Washington state’s space economy and Sen. Cantwell’s actions here.