Press Releases

Hickenlooper, Lummis, Cantwell, Wicker Bill Would Clear Space Junk, Secure Future Space Exploration & Satellites from Lethal Danger

Sep 13, 2022

ORBITS Act would create landmark program to clear orbital debris which currently threatens space exploration, satellites, and commercial space operations

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper and Cynthia Lummis and Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell and Ranking Member Roger Wicker introduced 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. 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.

“Our society is reliant on satellites in orbit, yet space junk is a constant, growing threat,” said Senator Hickenlooper, chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science. “Space debris endangers everything from global communications to advanced weather forecasting to human space exploration.”

“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 Senator Lummis, ranking member of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space and Science.

“There are more than 900,000 pieces of space junk passing over our heads every day, including abandoned Government satellites,” said Senator Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. “This bill will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk before it knocks out a satellite, crashes into a NASA mission, or falls to the ground and hurts someone. We must continue to explore space, and we have to do it safely.”

“The ORBITS Act would address an important aspect of the complex space debris problem, empowering NASA to partner with the U.S. space industry on active debris removal technology to tackle space junk threats. The United States is the world’s premier spacefaring nation, and I am pleased to join my colleagues in that effort,” said Senator Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

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.

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 incentivizing  two or moreteams 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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