Senate passes orbit debris cleanup bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed legislation that would direct NASA to establish a program to remove orbital debris, but supporters of the bill will likely have to try again in the next Congress to enact it.

The Senate passed by unanimous consent late Dec. 21 the Orbital Sustainability, or ORBITS, Act. The bill was introduced by Sen. 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, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) along with the chair and ranking member of the full committee, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

The bill would direct NASA, working with 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 bill doesn’t define how to calculate that risk or how many objects to include in the list.

The ORBITS Act would also require NASA to establish an active debris removal remediation program. It would make 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. The bill would allow NASA and other agencies to acquire debris removal services.

Besides the provisions on active debris removal, the bill would 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 authorize any specific funding for NASA or other agencies to carry out the active debris removal or other activities, beyond noting that such would work be subject to appropriations. It did have support from many companies and organizations such 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.

“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,” Cantwell said in a statement after the bill’s passage.

“I’m over the moon that our ORBITS Act passed and we can start cleaning up this space junk,” Hickenlooper said in a separate stating, adding that he would work to send the bill to the president.

That work, though, will have to start over next year. The House did not take up the ORBITS Act before passage of the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending bill Dec. 23, the last bill the House is scheduled to vote on in this Congress. Proponents will have to reintroduce the bill in the next Congress that convenes in January.

A bill on a related topic also died in the House. Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Donald Norcross (DN.J.) introduced the Space Safety and Situational Awareness Transition Act of 2022 Dec. 14 that 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 but so far 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.”