Four Key Senators Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Reduce Orbital Debris

Four Key Senators Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Reduce Orbital Debris

Four key Democratic and Republican Senators have introduced legislation to start ridding earth orbit of space debris. The Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act calls on NASA to establish a program to demonstrate technologies for Active Debris Removal, authorizing $150 million over 5 years. The bill also requires various agencies to publish a list of the debris that poses the greatest threat, update orbital debris standards, and encourage development of practices for coordinating space traffic to avoid collisions that create even more debris.

The ORBITS Act (S. 4814) was introduced yesterday by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), chair and ranking member of the Space and Science subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Joining them as sponsors are the chair and ranking member of the full committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Wicker already has legislation to codify the Department of Commerce’s (DOC’s) role in serving as the interface with civil and commercial satellite operators on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) — knowing where space objects are and warning satellite operators of potential collisions. The Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act passed the Senate last year as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, but did not make the final cut as that legislation morphed into the Inflation Reduction Act.

The Trump Administration’s 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 designated DOC to take responsibility for civil and commercial SSA from DOD, which has been doing it for everyone all these years and wants to narrow its focus to the national security community. The Secretary of Commerce delegated the task to the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of DOC. Wicker’s SPACE Act would codify OSC’s role in SSA. Although it has not passed yet, Congress and the Administration seem to be on the same page and DOC and DOD just signed a Memorandum of Agreement spelling out their respective SSA responsibilities.

The question remains, however, on what can be done about the debris already cluttering earth orbit.

Infographic illustrating the amount of space debris. Credit: United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and European Space Agency (ESA). December 2020.

Atmospheric drag causes some to reenter naturally, but that can take decades or longer depending on altitude and satellite characteristics such as shape and mass. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to significantly lower its requirement that commercial satellite operators deborbit their low earth orbit satellites within 25 years of end of mission to 5 years, but that will affect only the creation of more debris, not what’s up there already.

In a press release today, Cantwell said there are “more than 900,000 pieces of space junk passing over our heads every day,” a total of 8,000 metric tons.

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.

Developing technologies for Active Debris Removal (ADR) to literally pick up the trash or attach propulsive systems to larger pieces and repurpose them or force them down has been underway for years by U.S. and non-U.S. companies and space agencies.

Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) attached itself to the Intelsat 901 communications satellite in February 2020, allowing the 18-year-old satellite to resume service.

NASA has done some work on ADR encouraged by laws and presidential policies and directives dating back to 2010, but a 2021 NASA Inspector General report strongly criticized the agency’s efforts as “lacking in initiative and urgency.”

Astroscale’s “End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration” (ELSA-d) mission demonstrated rendezvous operations between its “servicer” and “client” spacecraft in May 2022.

The ORBITS Act would —

  • direct NASA to establish an ADR demonstration program and authorize $150 million over 5 years to make “competitive awards” to “enable eligible entities to pursue the phased development and demonstration of technologies and processes,” with international cooperation encouraged;
  • direct DOC/OSC to publish an assessment of government and private sector demand for ADR services for the 10-year period beginning in 2024;
  • require NASA, in consultation DOD, DOC, the White House National Space Council, and commercial, academic and non-profit organizations, to publish a list identifying the pieces of space debris that pose the greatest risk;
  • require the National Space Council in coordination with DOD, DOC, the Federal Aviation Administration (which regulates commercial space launches and reentries), the FCC and NASA to update Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, with advice from commercial, academic and non-profit organizations; and
  • require DOC, in consultation with the National Space Council and the FCC, to facilitate the development of standard practices for on-orbit space traffic coordination.

The Senate committee’s House counterpart, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has held hearings on space debris and space sustainability, but did not appear close to making decisions at its most recent hearing in May.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, praised the ORBITS Act in an email to this evening, saying it will “address several current gaps in the current US efforts to deal with the threat posed by orbital debris and would put us back in a leadership position on making space more sustainable for all to use.”

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump Administration, also expressed support in an email to, though somewhat more reservedly, calling it a “modest, but constructive bill.”

He noted its bipartisan support, emphasis on ADR research and development, and “the lack of regulatory mandates — at least at this time.” But he also thinks tasking the National Space Council could be construed as Congress telling the White House how to manage the interagency process “which does not tend to work” and including the FCC, which is not part of the Executive Branch, “may be problematic.” He also pointed out that space objects remain the property of the states that launch them and perhaps some “policy pilot” efforts should be included in addition to the technical work.

NASA put out its own press release today saying it has selected three university-based proposals “to analyze the economic, social, and policy issues associated with space sustainability.” Bhavya Lal, NASA Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy and Strategy, said: “Maintaining our ability to use space is critical to our economy, our national security, and our nation’s science and technology enterprise. These awards will fund research to help us understand the dynamics of the orbital environment and show how we can develop policies to limit debris creation and mitigate the impact of existing debris.”

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