US Senate Passes Legislation to Enforce Debris Removal

by | Dec 30, 2022 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

The Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act will direct NASA to establish a program to remove orbital debris.

On 21 December, the United States Senate passed the legislation, Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, which will direct NASA towards creating a programme to remove orbital debris. It was initially introduced in September by Senator John Hickenlooper, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, and has now been passed with unanimous consent. This bill will have NASA, which works with the private sector and other government agencies, record down debris objects “that pose the greatest immediate risk to the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and on-orbit activities.” 

Moreover, under the ORBITS Act, NASA will also initiate an active debris removal remediation program. The program will facilitate the acquisition of debris removal services for NASA and other agencies, and reward “the development of technologies leading to the remediation of selected orbital debris”.

Although, the ORBITS Act has not allocated any specific funding for agencies to conduct active debris removal or other activities, Senator Maria Cantwell, ranking member of Senate Commerce Committee, believes that “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”. In working towards a sustainable space environment, the bill did garner support from many companies, such as the satellite servicing industry group CONFERS, which recognised that the passage of the bill acknowledged the need for orbital debris cleanup to be a joint effort between the government and space industry.

The field of space becomes increasingly accessible with satellites getting smaller and cheaper, and keeping up with space traffic has become more challenging. And far more concerning than the number of space assets we are launching is the case of space debris we leave behind with every mission. It is becoming vital for the space community to take responsibility for activities that may impact the safety and sustainability of the orbital environment. The passing of the ORBITS Act is only a beginning towards achieving this goal. As aptly put by Don Beyer, chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, “I hope that this legislation will serve as a strong starting place for future discussions about the way forward on space situational awareness”.