Space junk floats around Earth's orbit.

U.S. Senate passes orbital cleanup act

The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act of 2022, a bipartisan bill to establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program to reduce the amount of space junk in Earth orbit. 

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Fri Dec 30 2022Written by Lucca

On December 21, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Orbital Sustainability, or ORBITS Act which was introduced by Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, in September. The bill was co-sponsored by the ranking member of the subcommittee, Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), along with the chair and ranking member of the full committee, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

The bill is to direct NASA to work alongside other government agencies and the private sector, to publish a list of debris objects “that pose the greatest immediate risk to the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and on-orbit activities.”. The ORBITS Act also requires NASA to establish an active debris removal remediation program, marketing awards “for the development of technologies leading to the remediation of selected orbital debris” identified in the list, including demonstration missions to remove the debris.

Besides the provisions on active debris removal, the bill would also require the National Space Council to update the government’s existing Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, with future updates every five years. It directs the Commerce Department to work with other agencies on standard practices for space traffic coordination. 

The bill does not endorse any specific budget for NASA or other agencies to carry out operational debris removal or other activities. The project, however, has support from many companies and organizations in the private sector, such as the satellite servicing industry group CONFERS, which said in a September statement that the bill recognized orbital debris cleanup needed to be a joint effort of government and industry. However, active work from such a bill is to start next year, as the House didn’t take up the ORBITS Act before the passage of the fiscal year 2023 spending bill on December 23, the last bill the House is scheduled to vote on in this Congress. Supporters will have to reintroduce the bill in the next Congress session in January.

A project on a related subject also failed in the House of Representatives. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) introduced the Space Safety and Situational Awareness Transition Act of 2022 o December 14, which would have authorized the Commerce Department to establish a civil space situational awareness (SSA) capability, something it is in the process of doing under Space Policy Directive 3 without formal congressional authorization. It would direct NASA to pursue research to improve SSA capabilities.

The bill “is our best attempt to direct inter-agency traffic and establish clearly defined roles for key players on space situational awareness, including the Department of Commerce and NASA,” Beyer, chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said in a statement, acknowledging that this version was primarily a starting point for work in the next Congress. “I hope that this legislation will serve as a strong starting place for future discussions about the way forward on space situational awareness.”