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S. 587: DEBRIS Act of 2023

The biggest example of space junk was the Star Wars Holiday Special.


In March, to great fanfare, NASA announced the four members of the upcoming mission Artemis IIthe first crewed mission to the moon’s vicinity since 1972. On the flight up, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, Jeremy Hansen, and Reid Wiseman will have to dodge a lot of “space junk.”

The Defense Department keeps tabs on more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, also known by the nickname “space junk.”

These objects can hit and damage satellites in space, which assist with everything from weather forecasting to your navigation system or maps app. These objects can also potentially cause damages and fatalities down here on terra firma.

In 2021, a 20-ton empty core from a Chinese rocket became the fourth-largest object ever to fall uncontrolled to earth. By complete luck, it splashed down in the Indian Ocean instead of on somebody’s body or house.

That same year, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile on one of its own orbiting satellites. The result created more than 1,500 new pieces of trackable orbital debris.

In response, the U.S. became the first country to announce a national ban on missile tests against satellites in space. Japan, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand subsequently followed suit.

In 2021, NASA even canceled a planned spacewalk for astronauts aboard the International Space Station because of concerns that space junk might hit them.

So, is there anything Congress can do to tackle the increasing issue?

What each bill does

Two contrasting bills offer different approaches to the problem.

The ORBITS (Orbital Sustainability) Act would direct NASA to create a new program to either repurpose or remove the space debris objects that they determine pose the greatest risks.

It would also “encourage” the federal government to get other nations on board with the program and U.S. standards on the issue — although, of course, that’s easier said than done.

The bill was introduced in the Senate on February 15, as S. 447, by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO).

The DEBRIS (Deterring Errant Behavior Risking International Space) Act would create sanctions for foreign individuals deemed responsible for creating space junk without notifying the U.S. government in advance.

The legislation does allow several exemptions, including if the space junk was created in cooperation with the U.S. or as part of a U.N. mission.

It was introduced in the Senate on March 1, as S. 587, by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that, whether using more of a “carrot” or a “stick” approach, the problem of space junk has gotten out of hand.

“Earth’s orbit is home to critical satellites and is our gateway to space exploration,” Sen. Hickenlooper said in a press release. “It’s time for major spring cleaning to protect our space operations from the dangerous threat of debris.”

“We must punish reckless space behavior,” Sen. Rubio said in a separate press release. “Russia and China should be held accountable for negligently creating space debris and endangering space assets critical to our national security. My bill would create consequences for this dangerous behavior and protect our astronauts and space infrastructure.”

Odds of passage

In the prior Congress, the ORBITS Act attracted three bipartisan cosponsors: two Republicans and one Democrat. The Senate passed the ORBITS Act by unanimous consent in late December 2022, a few days before the congressional Christmas and holiday break. It never received a vote in the House.

The current version of the ORBITS Act has attracted five bipartisan cosponsors: two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

In the prior Congress, the DEBRIS Act attracted zero cosponsors and never received a committee vote.

The current version has also not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last updated Apr 17, 2023. View all GovTrack summaries.

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