The Chinese have filed a formal complaint at the United Nations through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It’s not entirely clear if the complaint is directly aimed at the United States government or at SpaceX or Elon Musk personally, but Beijing is up in arms. They’re claiming that Musk’s Starlink satellites came close to causing collisions with the new Chinese space station on two occasions this year, creating a hazard for the crew and forcing them to maneuver the station out of the path of the oncoming satellites. These reports are still unconfirmed and neither SpaceX nor the American embassy in Beijing has returned requests for comment. But given the amount of junk flying around in low-earth orbit these days, it doesn’t seem all that hard to believe. And given China’s own history with space debris, it’s a bit hypocritical of them to be casting stones at this point. (Associated Press)
China is calling on the United States to protect a Chinese space station and its three-member crew after Beijing complained that satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX nearly struck the station.
A foreign ministry spokesman accused Washington on Tuesday of ignoring its treaty obligations to protect the safety of the Tiangong station’s three-member crew following the July 1 and Oct. 21 incidents.
The Tiangong performed “evasive maneuvers” to “prevent a potential collision” with Starlink satellites launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the government said in a Dec. 6 complaint to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
As I already indicated, given the amount of traffic that Musk has put into orbit in just the past few years, it wouldn’t be all that shocking if this turned out to be true. As of this month, SpaceX has put up more than 1,800 Starlink satellites and they are expected to have more than 2,000 by the time the project is fully operational. Sooner or later we are bound to see this orbital traffic jam result in a collision of some sort.
The announcement of the accusation caused many Chinese citizens to vent their anger at Musk on Weibo, their country’s version of Twitter. Some called the Starlink satellites “floating space junk” while others accused Musk of launching “American space warfare weapons.”
That seems like a bit of an exaggeration. If we’re putting weapons into space (and we probably already have, to be honest) I rather doubt that we’re entrusting Elon Musk with the job. And if the Starlink satellites were really intended for use as weapons, they’re not being particularly stealthy about it.
As I mentioned above, the Chinese don’t have much room to talk when it comes to potential collisions in orbit. We’ve already had to move the International Space Station and send crews scurrying to escape capsules on at least two occasions after both China and Russia blew up decommissioned satellites while testing space weapons. The debris from all of this activity is mostly flying in the same orbital path as the space stations and all of the active satellites.
The real question is what should be done about it and who needs to take the responsibility to implement a solution. All of the countries that have space programs have contributed to the junkyard in the sky, with the United States clearly being the largest perpetrator. (Russia is probably in second place in this competition.) Building a maneuverable satellite with the ability to go around and gather up some of this junk and deorbit it really should be well within the realm of our current state of technology. But that will be an expensive job and someone will have to pay for it. Perhaps this is something the IMF could look into?