China has told the United Nations (UN) that its own crewed space station adjusted twice this year to avoid colliding with SpaceX Starlink satellites. According to a statement sent by China on December 6 under Article V of the Outer Space Treaty, Tianhe space station module performed preemptive collision avoidance on July 1 and October 21 owing to close passes by the Starlink-2305 (2021-024N) and Starlink-1095 (2020-001BK) satellites.
Normally, Starlink satellites orbit roughly 550 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, but the pair had dropped their elevations, presumably a portion of active deorbiting activities nearing the end of their lives. As a result, the two collided with China’s Tianhe, the country’s first space station module. The 3-person crew of Shenzhou-12 flight in July and the current Shenzhou-13 flight during the October near approach both inhabited Tianhe.
Using data from US space tracking, satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics validated the 2 close approaches as well as avoidance burns. The October pass appeared to be about three kilometers away.
“States Parties to this Treaty shall carry an international obligation for national operations in outer space, which include the moon and the other celestial bodies, whether certain activities are carried out by government entities or by non-governmental agencies, and for guaranteeing that national operations are carried out in accordance with the provisions established forth in the present Treaty,” the note from China stated. The “A/AC.105 UN series is normally ‘we did this, watch out,’ not ‘we are angry someone else did this,’ according to McDowell, making this complaint exceedingly unusual.
“I’m sure people will say things like, ‘did you know the International Space Station had to avoid debris from Chinese ASAT several times? But I believe this is yet another indicator that we are entering a qualitatively new phase in terms of low-Earth orbit crowding,” McDowell said. A request for feedback on the issue has so far gone unanswered by SpaceX.
Nearly 1,950 Starlink satellites have been launched, with about 1,800 in orbit and delivering internet services. The US Federal Communications Commission has already approved SpaceX’s plans for 12,000 satellites, and the company has filed papers for 30,000 more at various altitudes.
Following Chinese media coverage of the tactics, Chinese online users have harshly attacked Elon Musk, according to Reuters. With the two close approaches, Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid infamous for patriotic screeds, quoted a Chinese aerospace commentator on December 27, speculating SpaceX may have “tried China’s sensibility in space.” Competitors, astronomers, and others have questioned and condemned SpaceX’s Starlink project, with one industry executive stating, “They don’t play well with others.”