Cantwell, Hickenlooper and Colleagues Reintroduce Bill to Reduce Orbiting Junk That Endangers the Future Space Economy

February 16, 2023

ORBITS Act would support technologies to clear dangerous orbital debris that threatens astronauts and satellites

This week, U.S. Senator 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.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) to reintroduce 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 January 2023, two defunct Russian space objects narrowly avoided a collision that could have led to a worst-case scenario, creating thousands of new debris. In March 2021, a large piece of space junk crashed into a farmer’s property in Grant County, Wash.

“Space exploration is expected to become a $1 trillion economy by 2040, but space junk poses a serious danger to the industry’s safety and viability. Just last month, two Russian satellites came within 20 feet of colliding, which would have littered space with even more debris. This bill will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk before it knocks out a satellite – or worse, a NASA mission,” Sen. Cantwell said.

“Earth’s orbit is home to critical satellites and is our gateway to space exploration. It’s time for major spring cleaning to protect our space operations from the dangerous threat of debris,” said Hickenlooper.

“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 Lummis.

“Our country is the world’s foremost spacefaring nation, but a growing quantity of space debris threatens that progress,” Wicker said. “It is imperative that we invest now in the technology that can help keep our atmosphere clear for future exploration.”

“Space debris threatens U.S. military, communications, and scientific satellites, as well as the health and safety of American astronauts. Our commonsense legislation ensures safe space research and exploration by eliminating harmful debris from our orbit,” said Sinema.

“The federal government is tracking 47,000 objects larger than four inches in orbit, up nearly 50 percent over the last two years. It’s estimated that more than 100 million objects larger than a millimeter are in orbit. The risk that space debris poses to our space missions and our communication, navigation and research assets can’t be understated,” Feinstein said. “Beyond that, we have a responsibility to not turn space into a dump site. I’m proud to join Senator Hickenlooper on this legislation to prevent the accumulation of more space debris, and I appreciate his leadership in this important area.”

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 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 bill contains the following provisions to:

  1. 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;
  2. Establish a NASA program to demonstrate removal of debris from orbit, to accelerate the development of required technologies;
  3. Encourage consistent orbital debris regulations by initiating a multi-agency update to existing orbital debris standards applicable to Government systems; and
  4. 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.