Starlink Suffers a Rare Stumble in China

It's rare to see a negative headline for SpaceX. Musk's company has pushed the boundary for spaceflight, and things generally went its way in 2021.

Starlink Suffers a Rare Stumble in China

However, SpaceX is ending the year in a controversial tone as Chinese authorities criticize the company for interfering with their space program.

Starlink Could Be a Safety Risk

Earlier this month, Chinese space authorities filed a report with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), accusing SpaceX of flying its Starlink satellites too close to their upcoming space station.

The scathing report explained that China's forthcoming space station - dubbed "Tianhe" - made two "close encounters" with Starlink spacecraft.

As many know, Tianhe is the Chinese space program's current project - China's answer to the International Space Station (ISS). Work on Tianhe ramped up significantly this year and eventually launched fully in April.

Tianhe is the first and most important of three separate modules that will make up China's space station. It offers living facilities for astronauts - including separate living quarters, fitness equipment, and a communication center for easy correspondence with China's space command on Earth.

Several astronauts already work there, showing China's seriousness with moving its space agenda forward.

In its report with the United Nations, the Chinese space command explained that Tuanhe had two close encounters with Starlink equipment - one on July 1st and the other on October 21st. Both incidences occurred with astronauts aboard Tianhe, leading to significant safety concerns.

Everyone Should Play Nice

The note requested that UN officials remind countries of their obligations to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies - or the Outer Space Treaty - is a multilateral agreement signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union on January 27, 1967.

A foundation of international space law, the Treaty includes several key proposals - including prohibiting nuclear weapons in space, opening space for all countries to explore, and preventing any company from asserting sovereignty over space or any celestial body.

Chinese authorities requested that the United Nations help circulate the space treaty's information to all countries, reminding them of the need to ensure safety in space.

Jonathan McDowell, a journalist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, confirmed that these close encounters did happen.

In a graph shared on social media, McDowell showed that a Starlink satellite came within 1.9 miles (about 3 km) of Tianhe on October 21.

McDowell noted this was after Tianhe had implemented advanced maneuvers. So, while it's unclear whether Starlink satellites have some mechanism to prevent collisions, SpaceX might want to take additional precautions.

SpaceX's Responsibility to Ensure Safety

Interestingly, China's request isn't the only reprimand SpaceX has received. As far back as 2019, astronomers have criticized Starlink for possibly blocking their field of view, back during Starlink's earliest satellites' launch period.

Speaking with The Verge at the time, Darren Baskill, an outreach officer of physics and astronomy at the University of Sussex, said:

"It's going to become increasingly likely that the satellites will pass through the field of view and essentially contaminate your view of the Universe. And it's going to be difficult to remove that contamination away from our observations."

So far, SpaceX has launched over 1,900 Starlink satellites. The company ended 2021 with a flurry of launches and is working towards adding many more. When all is said and done, Starlink could very well have tens of thousands of satellites in space - delivering high-quality, low-cost internet across the globe.

To succeed, SpaceX will need to find a way to ensure freedom from potential collisions. The company's massive investment shouldn't come at the expense of other people - or other countries. The sky is vast enough for everyone, but safety is still priority.

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