SpaceX satellites’ near-misses fuel US-China tensions

A pair of dangerously close space encounters add to the tensions between the United States and China while underscoring the potential danger to astronauts as satellite constellations and debris proliferate in orbit.

Two SpaceX satellites had near misses with China’s space station earlier this year, one of them within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), in the latest sign of dangerous crowding in low Earth orbit.

In both cases, the orbiting laboratory performed evasive maneuvers to avoid the Starlink satellites operated by Elon Musk’s space company. The margin for a near-miss in October could have been as small as a few hundred meters if the astronauts aboard the space station had not drifted to a different altitude, according to data compiled by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

The close encounters led the Chinese government to criticize SpaceX in a December 6 memo to a United Nations committee that oversees operations in space. China’s complaint could prompt global action to manage congestion in space.

“Originally, when I saw this Chinese UN document, I said, ‘That’s a bit rich in Chinese, given the space debris they’ve generated,'” said McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, which is run by Harvard. University and the Smithsonian Institution. “But I think it’s a good sign.”

By pointing the issue to the UN panel, China could prompt the international community to update a treaty rooted in the Cold War, as well as an informal system that relies on operators e-mailing warnings of potential collisions with each other, he said. McDowell.

It has more than 4,800 commercial satellites in operation, roughly double the total from five years ago, along with a debris field of roughly 19,000 objects large enough to be tracked by radar.

The International Space Station, in which the United States is a partner, has faced its own problems, dodging debris fields created from tests of anti-satellite weapons by Russia in November and China in 2007.

Until recently, most satellites transmitted signals from fixed locations well above the stretch of space where the International Space Station and the Chinese Space Station operate. But that’s changing as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Musk’s formal company name, OneWeb and other new entrants launch smaller satellites to offer services like broadband internet from low Earth orbit.

This activity is led by SpaceX, which has launched more than 1,700 of its own satellites while building a telecommunications arm to help finance other companies’ forays into deep space. Unlike geostationary satellites, Starlinks can be maneuvered and are equipped with anti-collision technology.

China’s memo cites Starlink-1095, which had operated at an average altitude of 555 kilometers earlier this year, before descending to 382 kilometers and having a “close encounter” with the Chinese Space Station on July 1. An incident occurred with a separate Starlink satellite. October 21.

The Chinese government alerted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on December 3, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press conference in Beijing on Tuesday. He argued that the United States is not meeting its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. The incidents put station operators in danger, he said.

The US State Department declined to comment on the SpaceX incidents specifically. “We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that could endanger astronauts, cosmonauts, and others who may be orbiting the Earth,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the department, in a briefing. on Tuesday.

The space rivalry between the United States and China has intensified in recent years. A leading Chinese scientist said this month that his country could send astronauts to the moon for the first time by 2030, opening up the possibility of a duel between two of the world’s best-funded space powers.

Musk is also the CEO of Tesla Inc., which has received unprecedented political concessions and extensive government assistance to build a factory in Shanghai. SpaceX did not respond to inquiries about the Starlink incidents.

China launched the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft on October 16, sending three astronauts on a six-month mission to the country’s Tianhe space station, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

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