Cantwell, Hickenlooper ORBITS Act to Clean Up Space Junk Heads to Full Senate

July 27, 2023

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

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation 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. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Committee, joined Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in introducing the bill in February. The bill now heads to the Senate floor.

“The Orbital Sustainability or ORBITS Act will jumpstart the technology development we need to address the very serious problem of orbital debris that threatens our scientific satellites, human space exploration and commercial space services,” Sen. Cantwell said before the vote.

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. Recently, a car-sized object landed in Australia. 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 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.

The ORBITS Act would:

  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.

Sen. Cantwell has been a champion for Washington state’s space industry and currently 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 Act included the first new NASA Authorization since 2017, enshrining the NASA Artemis missions to the Moon and eventually Mars in U.S. law. The Artemis program has 42 suppliers in Washington state. Earlier this month, Sen. Cantwell hosted a Washington state space summit with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, where Sen. Cantwell talked about how the space industry has doubled and has brought thousands of jobs to the state. Read more on Washington state’s space economy and Sen. Cantwell’s actions here.