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Opinion: For Safety, Congress Must Act to Keep Space Clean

A new bipartisan proposal, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, wants to help keep potentially dangerous debris from orbit in order to protect satellites as well as safeguard astronauts and private space travelers.

(TNS) — Whether it's a plastic water bottle on a mountainside or an energy bar wrapper on the beach, humans tend to leave detritus in our wake. In that sense, outer space is no different. But while you can always pick up after yourself on Earth, it's not easy when that debris is traveling at four miles per second.

A new bipartisan proposal, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell wants to help keep potentially dangerous debris from orbit. This is a sensible, timely bill as space becomes more crowded with thousands of satellites lined up for launch over the next decade.

Congress must act to help protect those satellites as well as safeguard astronauts and private space travelers.

"There are more than 900,000 pieces of space junk passing over our heads every day, including abandoned government satellites," Cantwell said in a release. "This bill will jump-start the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk."

The Orbital Sustainability Act of 2022, or ORBITS Act, directs NASA to research, develop and demonstrate technologies related to debris removal. It also encourages consistent orbital debris standards and the development of practices for coordinating space traffic that will help avoid collisions.

There are about 500,000 pieces of debris currently in orbit, ranging from .4 inches to 4 inches in diameter, according to NASA. The speed of objects in orbit means that even a .4-inch bolt could easily punch through other objects.

Fortunately, there's a lot of space in, well, space. That, and a measure of luck, has meant that collisions are rare, but they do happen. Just last year, the Chinese satellite Yunhai 1-02 collided with debris associated with a Russian satellite launched in 1996.

Orbital space is going to get a lot tighter, said Austin Link, co-founder of Kent-based Starfish Space, as five times as many satellites are launched this decade as there have been previously. There is a movement to launch thousands of internet satellites in constellations, including by Washington-based Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper Systems.

Ideally, once a satellite reaches its end of life, it will descend into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Eventually, its altitude will decay, and it will disintegrate before it reaches the surface. However, things can go wrong and those satellites may need help, which is where new technologies can step in.

"The great challenge of a potential collision is not just those two satellites that are taken out of service. It creates a large cloud of debris, and each of those pieces of debris can also take out other satellites," Link said. A large enough chain reaction could render orbital space unusable.

The world relies on satellites for navigation, communication and imaging services. Their safe operation and retirement is critical to everything from GPS to national security.

The ORBITS Act is a strong step forward in keeping space clean.

© 2022 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.