SpaceX’s Starlin satellites are once again at the forefront of controversy. China claims that the satellites have twice approached its Tiangong space station, prompting the Chinese shuttle to perform avoidance maneuvers. China has complained to the UN, while SpaceX claims there was no danger as its satellites are prepared to avoid collisions.
“For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control,” Beijing said in the document published on the agency’s website. “The manoeuvre strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to assess,” Beijing said of the satellite involved in one of the incidents
The space race is heating not just technologically, but also diplomatically. “The US… ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing in late 2021.
“The United States should take immediate measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and adopt a responsible attitude to safeguard the lives of astronauts in orbit and the safe and stable operation of space facilities,” the foreign ministry spokesman added.
China claims that on two separate occasions (one in July, and one in October), Starlink’s satellites passed too close to its station. The Starlink network has been expanding rapidly, reaching 1,700 satellites in 2021, and set to reach over 4,000 by 2024. This Starlink constellation promises to bring low-cost internet for millions, but it’s also been criticized — not just for its performance, but also because of the light pollution it is causing, making it more and more difficult for astronomers to make observations.
It’s not the first time the problem of space clutter has come up. As more and more objects are sent into orbit, the margin for error is becoming thinner and thinner — and sometimes, accidents do happen. In November 2021, a Russian junk satellite knocked out Chinese satellite. Starlink is actively contributing to the clutter around our planet, and in this regard, it’s not hard to understand China’s concerns.
The Starlink website states that all satellites feature autonomous collision avoidance technology, which enables them to duck out of the way if they detect a potential crash with an oncoming piece of space junk, a space station or any other space-faring object. However, without international coordination, it’s nerve-wracking to have to rely on the satellites’ avoidance system.
However, China stepped up the rhetoric, calling out the US on what it sees as a “double standard”.
“Bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space … whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities,” China said in the note.
“It is a typical double standard for the United States to claim the so-called concept of responsible conduct in outer space,” Zhao said, adding that the US was ignoring its obligations under international treaties on outer space and posing a threat to astronauts’ lives.
According to the BBC, this triggered a series of virulent social media responses, with some classic satellites as “just a pile of space junk” or “American space warfare weapons”.
Addressing reporters who asked about this, US State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on the Chinese accusations.
“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who are orbiting the Earth or who have the potential to,” Price said.
China itself is not innocent in the space problems discussion. In 2007, China carried out anti-satellite missile test that created substantial debris, forcing the International Space Station to maneuver its way out of debris several times. Earlier this year, China’s space activity also came under fire after its space station crashed uncontrolled onto Earth, in the Indian Ocean.
Problems like this are a sign that the near-Earth space is becoming much tenser and potentially, a new space race is heating up.