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Congress’ attempt to clean up space debris

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This week, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act to the convention floor. The bipartisan bill focuses on the development of active debris removal technology (ADR), with the ultimate goal of removing hazardous debris objects from orbit.

The debris problem

More than 100 million individual pieces of debris are currently in Earth’s orbit, ranging from dust particles and paint to used US and Soviet boosters to decommissioned, defunct satellites. If the aerospace industry gears up to launch tens of thousands of satellites over the next decade, space-faring governments are figuring out how to stop the dreaded Kessler syndrome before it becomes a reality.

Orbital debris is notorious difficult to regulate. Until now, people have yet to actively remove debris from a job. While ADR is advancing rapidly, it is far from the promised land of commercial viability.

“Government investment in R&D is essential with any new technology,” said Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale, said a few months ago. Public investment can help drive innovative new ideas, such as ADR, about the ‘valley of death’.

  • For its part, the US Space Force plans to “prime number” ADR and other on-orbit service technologies by kickstart market incentives and helping to fund demos.

Bills

The ORBITS Act comprises four pillars. The bill would:

  1. Instruct NASA, the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), and the National Space Council (NSpC) to list the most dangerous pieces of debris in orbit.
  2. Commission NASA to create a program focused on R&D for debris removal.
  3. Update guidelines for orbital debris mitigation across multiple government agencies.
  4. Require OSC, the National Space Council and the FCC to develop practices to improve space situational awareness and space traffic management.

The second provision would allow NASA to petition the industry for ADR demonstrations, an important step in advancing this technology in the US. The bill recommends appropriations of $150 million from 2023 to 2027.

While we are here. . .

Restriction of orbital debris is top-of-mind among US government agencies. On Tuesday, NASA announced funding for three research proposals on the topic of space sustainability, focusing on economic, social and policy impacts. The three winners:

  1. Richard Linares and Danielle Wood of MIT and Moriba Jah of the University of Texas-Austin.
  2. Akhil Rao of Middlebury College, Daniel Kaffine of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.
  3. Patrice Kohl, Sergio Alvarez and Philip Metzger of the University of Central Florida.

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