Cantwell and Colleagues Reintroduce Bill to Reduce Orbiting Junk That Endangers the Future Space Economy

ORBITS Act would support technologies to clear dangerous orbital debris that threatens astronauts and satellites

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, joined U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to reintroduce 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 January 2023, two defunct Russian space objects narrowly avoided a collision that could have led to a worst-case scenario, creating thousands of new debris. In March 2021, a large piece of space junk crashed into a farmer’s property in Grant County, Wash.

“Space exploration is expected to become a $1 trillion economy by 2040, but space junk poses a serious danger to the industry’s safety and viability. Just last month, two Russian satellites came within 20 feet of colliding, which would have littered space with even more debris. This bill will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk before it knocks out a satellite – or worse, a NASA mission,” Sen. Cantwell said.

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 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.