U.S. Policy Memo: Active Orbital Debris Removal

Madeleine Chang | Oct 16, 2022


The United States should encourage the commercial development of active orbital debris removal technology.

It is our duty as a global space industry leader to take the first steps to mitigate the dangerous buildup of orbital debris, which usually originates from defunct satellites and can both damage existing satellites and prevent launches. China is the only state to have publicly demonstrated the physical disposal of a dead satellite by another satellite, also known as active debris removal. Not only do we not want to rely on China for deorbiting procedures, but we also want to protect our own satellites from being similarly removed by the dual-use technology.


Orbital debris is a serious issue that has been recognized by all major governing bodies, but the U.S. still lacks comprehensive legislation regarding the possibility of orbital debris from the domestic commercial space industry. The FCC introduced a new rule related to the mitigation of orbital debris as early as 2020. Earlier this year, NASA published a letter to the FCC voicing concerns about Starlink’s Gen 2 system, citing “substantial congestion in Low Earth Orbit” among other issues, after which SpaceX published an update stating its satellites will “deorbit… within 5 to 6 years.” The Space Force also indicated in January that it was interested in investing in debris-removal technologies, and in March Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the DEBRIS Act of 2022, which would impose sanctions on foreign actors that caused orbital debris. There is clear intent within the federal government to curtail orbital debris because of the threat it poses to American space activities. Additionally, the UN’s Our Common Agenda published in 2021 specifically mentions outer space debris as a matter of international concern.

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office recognizes the need for active debris removal. The 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 also states that “the United States should pursue active debris removal… to ensure the safety of flight operations,” which was reaffirmed by the 2021 National Orbital Debris Research and Development Plan. However, the U.S. is “woefully behind” on debris removal, with the most ambitious estimates for an initial demonstration citing 2024 as a target year, and 2023 and 2025 for JAXA and the ESA respectively.


Using the 2015 Space Launch Competitiveness Act as a model, streamline the development and testing of active debris removal projects and indemnify commercial participants. This act was crucial to the growth of private launch, spaceflight, and satellite startups in the past decade and new legislation could do the same for active debris removal.

Encourage NASA, the Department of Defense, and the FCC to issue requests for proposals for active orbital debris technology. Their differing missions and budgets may attract different partners, though a joint request could be feasible as well.\
Reach out to international partners to collaborate on the development and testing of debris removal technology, especially ESA and JAXA.


The main drawback to any of these alternatives is that they serve to hamper the growth of the domestic commercial space industry while investing in active debris removal strengthens it. Private industry is the U.S.’s main advantage over China in space. This is especially important given that the International Space Station will be deorbited by early 2030 while China’s Tiangong space station is almost finished and is set for a fifteen-year lifespan. American manned presence in low-Earth orbit will depend on private ventures like Axiom Station and Orbital Reef.



As the nation with the largest government and commercial presence in space, the United States is in a unique position to set important precedents in using space sustainably. Investing in active orbital debris removal technology will allow us to defend against the same technology deployed by China, strengthen the American private space industry, and make orbit safer for satellites. We should seek to collaborate with international partners and later enforce restrictions on satellite launching and deorbiting.

Note: China is simultaneously our most important collaborator and our most dangerous adversary. In a speech in May, Secretary of State Blinken said:

“We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China – or any other country, for that matter – from growing their economy or advancing the interests of their people.

But we will defend and strengthen the international law, agreements, principles, and institutions that maintain peace and security, protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations, and make it possible for all countries – including the United States and China – to coexist and cooperate.”

I would deeply love if we could work together to build an international moon base, but unfortunately the U.S. and Chinese governments have competing visions for the world order. The U.S. is particularly opposed to President Xi Jinping’s apparent push to make the world more friendly to autocratic governments.

Disclaimer: Views are my own and do not aim to represent SFI.