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

ORBITS Act would Create Landmark Program to Clean Up Dangerous Orbital Debris

February 22, 2023

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., joined U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in reintroducing the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act. This bipartisan bill would establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program that would reduce the nearly one million pieces of space junk in orbit.

“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.”

“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,” Hickenlooper said.

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. 

The ORBITS Act includes 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 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

The full text of the bill can be found here.