Space debris concerns prompt new action by NASA and Congress

NASA and the US Congress have joined the chorus in demanding action to reduce the threat of space debris.

Large constellations of satellites that are assembled by companies such as SpaceXas well as a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test in November 2021 which threatened international space station operations repeatedly, likely fuel these discussions, due to concerns about space debris affecting access to and use of Earth’s orbit.

As more satellites go up, the risk of collisions – which can spawn large clouds of debris, as the Russian ASAT test did – also increases. Even a few of these collapses could seriously affect a range of services provided by satellite such as telecommunications, navigation and weather forecasting, experts pointed out.

Related: Space debris from Russian anti-satellite missile test spotted in telescope images and video

In Congress, a bipartisan bill introduced on September 13 aims to address the space debris problem. The Orbital Sustainability Act (ORBITS) (opens in a new tab)is led by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“This bill will kick-start the technology development needed to dispose of the most hazardous waste before it destroys a satellite, crashes into a Nasa mission, or fall to the ground and injure someone,” Cantwell said in a statement on legislation (opens in a new tab), which is in the early stages of discussion. If approved, the bill would focus on the development and demonstration of debris removal technologies and seek to create a market for these services.

Meanwhile, NASA announced on September 13 that it had funded three projects (opens in a new tab) focused on dealing with orbital debris. The projects are also at an early stage, but seek to quantify the economic and social problems associated with the rise of space waste.

“Maintaining our ability to use space is critical to our economy, our national security, and our country’s science and technology enterprise,” said Bhavya Lal, Associate Administrator of the Office of Technology, Policy and NASA’s strategy, in a statement. “These awards will fund research to help us understand the dynamics of the orbital environment and show how we can develop policies to limit the creation of debris and mitigate the impact of existing debris.”

The three projects are:

  • “Adaptive Space Governance and Decision-Support using Source-Sink Evolutionary Environmental Models”, presented by Richard Linares and Danielle Wood from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Moriba Jah from the University of Texas-Austin;
  • “An Integrated Assessment Model for Satellite Constellations and Orbital Debris, presented by Akhil Rao of Middlebury College, Daniel Kaffine of the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation;
  • “Communication and Space Debris: Connecting with Public Knowledges and Identities”, submitted by Patrice Kohl, Sergio Alvarez and Philip Metzger from the University of Central Florida.

An illustration depicting space warfare. A missile, launched from a ground station, approaches a satellite in orbit above the Earth. (Image credit: Mark Garlick/Getty Images)

The new efforts by Congress and NASA follow an August announcement by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which pledged to new framework of rules on orbital debris with a focus on the risks and opportunities for space assembly and maintenance manufacturing (ISAM). The last major update from the FCC on space junk before this was just two years ago.

And in September, Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would urge other nations to abandon destructive anti-satellite tests, in part due to concerns about space debris. She raised the issue while chairing a meeting of the National Space Council in mid-September, following a commitment from the April Biden administration. do not lead destructive anti-satellite missile space tests.

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