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The Congressional Effort to Clean Up Space Debris

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This week, Senators Maria Cantwell (Democrat-Washington), John Hickenlooper (Democrat-Colorado), Cynthia Ramis (Republican-Wyoming), and Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) voted to pass the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act. was submitted to parliament. The bipartisan bill seeks to develop active debris removal (ADR) technology with the ultimate goal of removing dangerous debris from orbit.

Over 100 million individual pieces are currently in Earth orbit, from dust and paint shards to used US and Soviet launch vehicles to decommissioned and defunct satellites. As the space industry prepares to launch tens of thousands of satellites over the next decade, governments of space nations are figuring out how to stop the dreaded Kessler Syndrome before it becomes a reality.

Orbital debris is notoriously difficult to control. So far, humanity has yet to actively remove debris from orbit. ADR is advancing rapidly, but is far from the promised commercial realization.

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As Chris Blackerby, his COO at Astroscale, said a few months ago: Public investment helps bring revolutionary new ideas like his ADR across Death Valley.

The ORBITS method he consists of four pillars. The bill is:

America Space Force plans to “prepare” ADR and other on-orbit service technologies by launching market incentives and helping fund demonstrations.

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Direct NASA, the Office of Space and Commerce (OSC), and the National Space Council (NSpC) to compile lists of the most dangerous pieces of debris in orbit.

Direct NASA to create a program focused on debris removal research and development.

Updated orbital debris containment guidelines for multiple government agencies. We urge the OSC, the National Space Council, and the FCC to develop practices to improve space situational awareness and space traffic management.

A second provision allows NASA to seek industry demonstrations of her ADR. This is an important step in advancing technology in the United States. The bill recommends $150 million in funding from 2023 to 2027. Orbital debris mitigation is a priority for all US government agencies. On Tuesday, NASA announced funding for her three space sustainability research proposals, which focus on economic, social and political implications. The three winners are:

Richard Linares and Daniel Wood of MIT and Morivagers of the University of Texas at Austin. He is Akhil Rao from Middlebury College, Daniel Kaffine from the University of Colorado Boulder, and Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation.

Patrice Cole, Sergio Alvarez, and Philip Metzger of the University of Central Florida.

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