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Hickenlooper, Colleagues Reintroduce Bill to Clear Space Junk, Protect Space Operations

Feb 16, 2023

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

Bill unanimously passed Senate late last year

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper along with U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell, Cynthia Lummis, Kyrsten Sinema, Roger Wicker, and Dianne Feinstein reintroduced the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, a bipartisan bill to establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program that would reduce the nearly 1 million pieces of space junk in orbit.

“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 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,” Cantwell said.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

“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 ORBITS Act, previously introduced in September, unanimously passed the Senate in December at the end of the 117th Congress.

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 threats from debris already in orbit, 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 robust commercial market for these services.

Recently, 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 the past year alone.  

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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