The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the amount of space junk in orbit. The bill, introduced by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in collaboration with other senators, establishes a demonstration program to tackle the issue. The act now moves to the House for consideration.
Space junk, also known as orbital debris, poses a significant threat to human space exploration, scientific research missions, and commercial space services. Currently, there are approximately 8,000 metric tons of space junk in orbit, including over 900,000 potentially lethal debris pieces that endanger satellites. Merely preventing the creation of more debris is insufficient due to the existing magnitude of the problem.
To address this issue, the ORBITS Act outlines several key initiatives. Firstly, it directs the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to publish a list of the debris that poses the highest risk to orbiting spacecraft. Additionally, the act establishes a NASA program to demonstrate the removal of debris from orbit, thus accelerating the development of necessary technologies. It also aims to promote consistent orbital debris regulations by initiating a multi-agency update to existing standards applicable to government systems. Lastly, the act requires OSC, in collaboration with the National Space Council and the Federal Communications Commission, to encourage the development of practices for coordinating space traffic to mitigate collisions and subsequent debris creation.
Space junk falling to Earth is not a rare occurrence. In Australia, a car-sized object landed on a beach, while in Washington state, a piece of space debris crashed into a farmer’s property earlier this year. Washington-based companies, such as Starfish Space, SpaceX, Amazon’s Kuiper Systems, and Stoke Space Technologies, have advocated for accelerated efforts in space debris removal.
Senator Cantwell, who oversees NASA and the space industry as Chair of the Committee, has been a proponent of enhancing Washington state’s space industry. She played a pivotal role in passing the CHIPS and Science Act last year, which included the NASA Authorization and the Artemis program. This program, with 42 suppliers in Washington state, aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually reach Mars. Sen. Cantwell’s actions highlight the importance of the space industry to the state’s economy, supporting over 13,000 jobs and generating $4.6 billion in economic activity.