(The Center Square) – In March 2021, debris from a SpaceX rocket lit up the Pacific Northwest sky as it re-entered the atmosphere before thudding to Earth in a farmer’s field in central Washington state.
At the time, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office described the recovered object as a black “composite-overwrapped pressure vessel” from the Falcon 9 rocket.
No one was hurt in the incident. But the dislodged debris was just one of thousands of pieces of “space junk” orbiting around our planet that pose a potential threat to people and property below. Congress is taking the threat seriously.
This week, a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and John Hickenlooper, D-Col., unanimously passed the Senate. The bipartisan Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act now heads to the House for consideration.
“Nearly one million pieces of space junk pass over our heads every day,” said Cantwell, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in a press release Wednesday. “The ORBITS Act will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous space junk before it knocks out a scientific satellite, threatens a NASA mission, or falls to the ground and hurts someone.”
Every year, she said, there are cases of space junk falling to earth. In addition to the Grant County incident, she noted a car-sized object landed in Australia over the summer.
Washington companies, including Seattle-based satellite servicer Starfish Space, have advocated for the acceleration of space debris removal efforts. Cantwell said other companies in the state, such as SpaceX, Amazon’s Kuiper Systems, and Stoke Space Technologies, are also looking for new ways to reduce debris from accumulating in space in the first place or have been threatened by debris.
An estimated 8,000 metric tons of space junk including at least 900,000 individual pieces of debris are currently in orbit and pose threats to satellites, commercial space services, research missions, and human space exploration.
Because of the magnitude, simply preventing more debris in the future is not enough, said Cantwell.
If enacted, the ORBITS Act would require NASA to establish a program demonstrating the removal of debris to speed up development of needed technologies.
The act would also encourage consistent orbital debris regulations by multiple agencies to update existing standards, direct the federal Office of Space Commerce to publish a list of debris posing the greatest risk to spacecraft, and require the OSC, National Space Council, and Federal Communications Commission to encourage practices to coordinate space traffic to avoid collisions.
A total of $150 million would be appropriated for fiscal years 2024 to 2028 for the work, which would assess collision and explosion risks, casualty probability, post-mission disposal of space stations, spacecraft collision avoidance and automated identification capability, and the ability to track debris of decreasing size.
In March, NASA issued a report, saying the motives for debris remediation are valid, but the cost is not well known and associated benefits “may not materialize for many years.”
The bill calls for annual agency updates to appropriate Congressional committees on the status of technology development and policy recommendations and a “mitigation standard practices” review at least every five years. That would involve the Secretaries of Defense, State, and Transportation for domestic and international space missions.