WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to update an existing research-and-development plan aimed at combatting orbital debris.

Overseeing the orbital debris R&D plan is an interagency group within the National Science and Technology Council that deals with national security and space issues. The NSTC reports directly to the president. 

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said in a Federal Register notice Nov. 5 that the orbital debris interagency group is drafting a plan to be released in 2022 and is soliciting public input through Dec. 31.

The updated strategy will build off an existing R&D plan on orbital debris released by the Trump administration in January 2021. That document noted that a lack of coordination among U.S. departments and agencies makes it difficult to “advance a common national vision for orbital debris risk management.”

  • The Department of Defense collects debris data, tracks debris and notifies operators of possible collisions. 
  • NASA uses radars, telescopes, and in situ measurements to statistically sample debris too small to be tracked but still large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions. NASA also led the development of the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP).
  • The Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Communications Commission all have policies or regulations intended to limit the creation or accumulation of debris.

A new debris-focused technology effort that is just getting under way is led by the U.S. Space Force. The project, called Orbital Prime, will be discussed by the interagency group that focuses on debris remediation technologies, Lt. Col. Brian Holt, project lead at SpaceWERX, told SpaceNews. 

“DoD, including Space Force will be represented,” he said.

Orbital debris is creating collision hazards across the space environment surrounding the Earth but is particularly concentrated around the most widely used low orbits below 2,000 kilometers in altitude. The U.S. government estimated there are more than 8,000 metric tons of orbital debris from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous Earth orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth.

Space industry consultant Patricia Cooper, a former vice president of government affairs at SpaceX, said there are internal disagreements in the U.S. government about how to deal with orbital debris. Further, the U.S. alone can’t fix the problem and needs cooperation from other nations that launch satellites into space. 

A long-standing guideline requires deorbiting satellites within 25 years and there is a growing push to shorten that. “There are some in NASA who think that it’s more important to enforce that rule than it is to make it even tighter,” Cooper said at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ ASCEND 2021 conference. 

“So there’s still some problems even enforcing that,” she said. With regard to commercial LEO constellations, “there’s been a robust discussion about whether propulsion is important, or having a plan to de orbit, and there’s been some very good discussion about how much time after the end of the mission should elapse particularly at different altitudes, and whether that needs to be propulsive.”

But there are still basic questions haven’t been answered yet, Cooper said. 

A significant challenge is that many home countries of where constellations are licensed don’t have any debris mitigation rules published, “and you cannot see what their plans are,” she said. “That is a concern and I think maybe unduly puts the emphasis on the U.S. because everyone’s plans that are U.S. filed must be made public. But if you filed in Rwanda or China, your space safety approach is not published.”

Despite these hurdles, said Cooper, “I see a good deal of resolve. There’s definitely a sense of imminent need.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...