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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
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.