WASHINGTON — The Senate has passed a bill that would direct NASA to create an orbital debris remediation program, sending it on to the House for the second time.

The Senate passed by unanimous consent Oct. 31 S. 447, the Orbital Sustainability, or ORBITS, Act of 2023. The bill previously passed the Senate Commerce Committee in July.

The central part of the bill would direct NASA to establish an active debris removal program. Tnat includes creating “a demonstration project to make competitive awards for the research, development, and demonstration of technologies leading to the remediation of selected orbital debris.” It would also require NASA to enter into a partnership to fly a demonstration mission to remove debris.

The debris that could be removed by those demonstrations would come from a list developed by the Department of Commerce to identify debris “to improve the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and on-orbit activities.” The Department would also lead work on best practices for space traffic coordination. The bill directs the National Space Council to lead an update of the federal government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

“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,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement.

It is the second time the Senate has passed a version of the ORBITS Act. A similar bill also passed the Senate by unanimous consent in late 2022, but was not taken up by the House.

The Senate also passed by unanimous consent S. 1648, the Launch Communications Act. The bill directs the Federal Communications Commission to streamline access to spectrum for commercial launches and reentries. The FCC adopted rules at a Sept. 21 commission meeting that provided new access to spectrum for commercial launches.

“We can’t let space junk and red tape stifle American innovations that are lifting us to new frontiers in space. Our bills will help our country maintain space leadership,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), who sponsored the ORBITS Act and co-sponsored the Launch Communications Act, said in a statement.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...