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China upset about needing to dodge SpaceX Starlink satellites


Image of a rocket launch.
Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in May 2021 carrying the 29th batch of approximately 60 satellites as part of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband Internet network.

Earlier in December, the Chinese government filed a document with the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at the United Nations. The body helps manage the terms of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, more commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty. In the document, China alleges that it had to move its space station twice this year due to potential collisions with Starlink satellites operated by SpaceX.

The document pointedly notes that signatories of the treaty, which include the US, are responsible for the actions of any nongovernmental activities based within their borders.

The document was filed back on December 6, but it only came to light recently when Chinese Internet users became aware of it and started flaming Elon Musk, head of SpaceX.

The document starts out with an impossibly formal 110-word-long sentence that notes the Outer Space Treaty obliges its signatories to inform other nations when they discover any phenomena in space that could pose a risk to astronauts. It then indicates that China has identified such a threat: Starlink satellites.

Starlink is SpaceX’s satellite-based Internet service, which launched in beta earlier this year. To achieve decent coverage, the company has already put up a large number of small satellites, and has plans for many, many more. This has caused worries within the astronomy community, as the satellites can potentially photobomb astronomical observations, appearing as long streaks across lengthy exposures.

There have also been concerns about how the large constellations of satellites could worsen our space junk problem, although those were eclipsed when Russia blew up one of its satellites in November, creating a massive debris cloud.

China’s complaint seems to be an attempt to return the world’s attention to SpaceX’s satellites. The document describes two cases in which the country alleges it had to move the China Space Station out of the way of a Starlink satellite.

The first is one where it says Starlink device had been orbiting at over 500 km, but was brought down to 382 km through a series of maneuvers that completed on June 24th. A week later, this new orbit created a close encounter with the China Space Station. In the second case, the space station was moved simply because China couldn’t figure out what SpaceX’s hardware was doing. “The maneuver strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to be assessed,” the document reads, “there was thus a collision risk between the Starlink-2305 satellite and the China Space Station.”

The document goes on to remind everyone that, while the US doesn’t exert control over SpaceX, it is responsible for any problems it creates. It quotes the Outer Space Treaty as saying that “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”

As of today, the incidents have not been independently verified, and SpaceX hasn’t responded to any requests for comment. But the Chinese government, for its part, would like the US government to step in.



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