A bipartisan group of senators has reintroduced legislation that would establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program to reduce the nearly one million pieces of space junk in orbit.
Sens. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., first introduced the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act in September 2022. The ORBITS Act unanimously passed the Senate in December 2022 at the end of the 117th Congress. There was no companion bill in the House.
If the reintroduced measure becomes law, it would create a landmark program to clean up dangerous orbital debris that threatens space exploration, satellites, and commercial space operations.
The program will focus on research, development, and demonstration of technologies capable of safely carrying out successful Active Debris Remediation missions, and jumpstarting a new market for these services.
“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 Sen. Hickenlooper.
Orbital debris currently poses a threat to human space exploration, scientific research missions, and emerging commercial space services. Recently, NASA had to cancel a planned spacewalk and maneuvered the International Space Station (ISS) to avoid colliding with orbital debris.
There are approximately 8,000 metric tons of debris currently in orbit, including about 900,000 individual pieces of debris that are potentially lethal to satellites. The ISS performed numerous Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuvers in the past year alone because of the growing number of orbital debris.
“Because of the threats from debris already in orbit, simply preventing more debris in the future is not enough,” Sen. Hickenlooper said.
The Federal government is tracking 47,000 objects larger than four inches in orbit – a number that increased by 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,” Sen. Feinstein said. “Beyond that, we have a responsibility to not turn space into a dump site.”
“Space junk is not only dangerous to humans exploring space, but 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 Sen. Lummis.