US Space Force's 'Orbital Prime' project aims to attack space debris by recycling or removing junk

A new U.S. Space Force video "demands action" on space debris and asks the private sector for their help cleaning up the growing space mess.

The video was released Jan. 5 on the Space Force's SpaceWERX website (its technology branch) to push a program called Orbital Prime, which aims to test out an on orbit-system within two to four years. The first solicitation is due Feb. 17.

Space debris, said Vice Chief of Space Operations Lt. Gen. David Thompson in the video, "demands action and provides an opportunity for partnership in the search for innovative solutions to recycle, reuse or remove these objects."

Space Force's ask for partnerships took place weeks after an anti-satellite test by Russia in November produced so much debris that the risk of strikes to the International Space Station has increased measurably, according to NASA.

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This SpaceWerx diagram outlines the goals of on-orbit spacecraft servicing, assembly and manufacturing for space sustainability. (Image credit: SpaceWerx/U.S. Space Force)

The crew on the orbiting complex was forced to take shelter in their return craft in November, while ground control takes measures to assess or dodge debris in consultation with the Department of Defense, which tracks space junk.

Space Force hopes to address more general space junk issues in low-Earth orbit through testing in-orbit debris removal technologies. Phase 1 awards are valued at $250,000 and Phase 2 at $1.5 million.

“Our vision in this partnership is to aggressively explore those capabilities today, in the hope that we and others can purchase them as a service in the future,” Thompson said in the video.

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, Space Force's vice chief of space operations, testifying at a past congressional committee. (Image credit: SASC)

While there are well over 20,000 trackable pieces of space debris, what also concerns the Space Force is the number of smaller objects (such as screws or flecks of paint) that would not be able to be tracked.

Industry representatives have more generally pointed to the rise of large-scale satellite constellations as another potential threat in mitigating space debris, as SpaceX's Starlink constellation alone has produced several near-misses in recent months.

“Our goal through Orbital Prime," Thompson said, "is to partner with innovative minds in industry, academia and research institutions to advance and apply state of the art technology and operating concepts in the areas of debris mitigation and removal." 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: