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Hickenlooper Bill to Clear Space Junk, Protect Space Exploration, Passes Senate Unanimously

Dec 22, 2022

ORBITS Act would create landmark program to clear dangerous orbital debris threatening space exploration, satellites, and commercial space operations 

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper applauded Senate passage of his Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Acta bipartisan bill to establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program to reduce the amount of space junk in orbit. The bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“From satellite communications to rockets carrying humans into deep space, space debris is a massive threat to space operations,” said Hickenlooper, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science. “I’m over the moon that our ORBITS Act passed and we can start cleaning up this space junk.”

Space junk, or orbital debris, currently threatens human space exploration, scientific research missions, and emerging commercial space services. 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. The ORBITS Act will jumpstart a program focused on research, development, and the demonstration of technologies capable of safely carrying out successful Active Debris Remediation (ADR) missions to create a new market for these services.

In July 2021, Hickenlooper chaired a Subcommittee hearing, featuring testimony from Dr. Marcus Holzinger of CU-Boulder, to underscore the importance of responsible norms of space behavior and sustainability on-orbit. Yesterday, NASA canceled a planned spacewalk and maneuvered the International Space Station (ISS) to avoid colliding with orbital debris. Due to growing amounts of debris, the ISS has performed numerous Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuvers (PDAM) in 2022 alone. Last year, Hickenlooper urged Vice President Harris to discuss actions at the National Space Council’s first meeting under the Biden Administration to protect space sustainability following Russia’s reckless anti-satellite (ASAT) test which created over 1,500 pieces of new orbital debris objects. Hickenlooper has also championed the growth of the Office of Space Commerce, which is expanding its orbital debris tracking capabilities for civil and commercial operators in space. 

Hickenlooper introduced the legislation with U.S. Senators Cynthia Lummis, Maria Cantwell, and Roger Wicker back in September. Hickenlooper will continue working to send the ORBITS Act to President Biden’s desk for signature.

Full text of the ORBITS Act is available HERE.

Specifically, the bill contains the following provisions:

  • Orbital Debris Remediation List
    • Directs NASA, in coordination with the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and the National Space Council, to publish a list of debris objects that pose the greatest risk to the safety of orbiting spacecraft and on-orbit activities
  • Active Orbital Debris Remediation Demonstration Program
    • Directs NASA to establish a demonstration program to partner with industry in developing technology for remediating debris objects through repurposing or removal from orbit
      • The NASA program will promote competition by incentivizingtwo or more teams of technology developers to conduct demonstrations of successful debris remediation
    • Asks NASA to partner with other nations to address debris in orbit that belongs to them
  • Active Debris Remediation (ADR) Services
    • Encourages the U.S. government to buy ADR services from  industry partners once they succeed in the demonstration and are commercially available
    • Requires an economic assessment of the long-term demand for ADR services
  • Uniform Orbital Debris Standards
    • Directs the National Space Council to update the Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) used by U.S. government space missions
      • Encourages the FAA and FCC to use the updated standards and practices as the basis for federal regulations applicable to all space activities
      • Directs the U.S. to encourage other nations to align their regulations with ours to encourage effective and non-discriminatory regulation worldwide
  • Space Traffic Coordination Standard Practices
    • Directs the Department of Commerce, in coordination with the National Space Council and the FCC, to develop and promote standard practices for avoiding near misses and collisions between spacecraft in orbit


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