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China Complains That Starlink Satellites Threaten Its Space Station

Two satellites of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation nearly collided with China’s under-construction space station this year, according to the Beijing government.

In both cases, one in July and one in October, the orbiting laboratory performed evasive maneuvers to avoid satellites operated by Elon Musk’s space company.

The Battle for satellites

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A memorandum submitted by China forwarded to a United Nations committee that oversees operations in space, dated December 6, 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.

Another incident occurred with a Starlink satellite on October 21. According to data compiled by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell and cited by Bloomberg, in that second episode, the margin for an accident could have been as small as a few hundred meters if the astronauts aboard the space station had not drifted to a different altitude. 

Photo|via|Getty Io mages

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

Speaking at a similar briefing on Wednesday, Zhao called on all nations to “respect and defend the international order in space based on international law.”

The US State Department declined to comment on the SpaceX incidents specifically. At a briefing on Tuesday, Ned Price, a spokesman for the department, said “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.”

China launched the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft on Oct. 16, sending three astronauts on a six-month mission to its under-construction space station, called Tiangong, whose central module, Tianhe, is already operating.

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