Cantwell and Colleagues Introduce Bill to Thin Out the 900,000 Pieces of Orbiting Junk That Endanger the Future Space Economy

ORBITS Act would demonstrate technologies to clear dangerous orbital debris that threatens astronauts and satellites -- and even crashed into a Washington state farm

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, joined U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Commerce Committee Ranking Member U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), and U.S. Sen Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) to introduce 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. In March 2021, a large piece of space junk crashed into a farmer’s property in Grant County, Wash.

“There are more than 900,000 pieces of space junk passing over our heads every day, including abandoned Government satellites,” said Sen. Cantwell. “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 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. Washington state companies, including Seattle-based satellite servicer Starfish Space, have advocated for the acceleration of space debris removal efforts. Other Washington companies like SpaceX, Amazon’s Kuiper Systems, and Stoke Space Technologies are also looking for new ways to reduce debris from accumulating in space in the first place or have been threatened by debris. More than 1,300 Washington companies are involved in the aerospace industry.

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.

The bill contains the following provisions to:

  1. Direct NASA, the Department of Commerce Office of Space Commerce (“OSC”), and the National Space Council to publish a list of debris that pose the greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft;
  2. Establish a NASA program to demonstrate removal of debris from orbit, to accelerate the development of required technologies;
  3. Encourage consistent orbital debris regulations by initiating a multi-agency update to existing orbital debris standards applicable to Government systems; and
  4. Require OSC, with the National Space Council and Federal Communications Commission, to encourage the development of practices for coordinating space traffic, which will help avoid collisions that create debris.