Chinese space station maneuvered to avoid Starlink satellites

HELSINKI – China has informed the United Nations that its maneuvered space station twice maneuvered to avoid potential collisions with SpaceX Starlink satellites earlier this year.

A notification dated Dec. 6 by China under Article V of the Outer Space Treaty, said the Tianhe space station module helped prevent preemptive collisions due to close approaches by Starlink satellites -1095 (2020-001BK) and Starlink-2305 (2021-024N) on July 1 and October 21 respectively.

Starlink satellites typically orbit about 550 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, but the pair had lowered their altitude, apparently as part of active deorbiting maneuvers at the end of the satellites’ life.

This saw the pair drift along the path of China’s Tianhe, the country’s first space station module. Both times, Tianhe was manned by a three-person crew from the Shenzhou-12 mission in July and the current Shenzhou-13 mission during the close approach in October.

Satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, confirmed the two close-in approaches and avoidance burns using data released by US space tracking. The October Pass seems to have been less than three kilometers away.

China’s note called on the United Nations Secretary-General to remind others that “States parties to the Treaty bear international responsibility for national activities in space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, that these activities are carried out by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and to ensure that national activities are carried out in accordance with the provisions set out in this Treaty.

McDowell said News by email that the UN’s “A / AC.105 series is usually ‘we did this, be careful’, not” we’re unhappy that someone else did this “, which makes this very unusual complaint.

“I expect people to be like ‘uh, you know the ISS must have dodged Chinese ASAT debris more than once too?’ “But I think that’s another sign that we’re in a qualitatively new era in low Earth orbit congestion,” McDowell noted.

SpaceX has so far not responded to a request for comment on the incident.

The company has spear nearly 1,950 Starlink satellites, of which approximately 1,800 are in orbit and provide Internet services. SpaceX has plans for 12,000 satellites already approved by the United States Federal Communications Commission and has submitted documents for 30,000 more across a range of altitudes.

Reuters reported that Chinese netizens sharply criticized Elon Musk for the incident, following Chinese media reports of the maneuvers.

Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid known for its nationalist cope, quoted a Chinese aerospace commentator on December 27, to suggest SpaceX “may have aimed to test China’s sensitivity in space” with the two close approaches.

SpaceX’s Starlink project has been challenged and criticized by competitors, astronomers and others, with one industry official saying: “they don’t play well with others. “

The 22-ton, 16.6-meter-long and 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe was launched in April this year as the first of three modules to form the Tiangong space station. Two Tianzhou cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft are currently docked with the module.

A Long March 2F and Shenzhou-14 spacecraft are in near-ready state at the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in case of an emergency. Such a launch is expected to take nine days according to reports.

The Chinese human spaceflight agency, the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CCAC), worked to establish the space station and adapt to the challenges and gain experience in operating long-range crewed missions in LEO, including cargo supply, spacewalks and l ‘interview.

Being able to avoid debris requires being able to detect, track and predict the trajectories of objects in low Earth orbit and to be able to maneuver a spacecraft accordingly.

The International Space Station has had to adjust its orbit to avoid debris on several occasions, especially due to fragments a 2007 Chinese military destructive anti-satellite missile test – the largest debris creation incident to date – as well as upper rocket stages from other countries.

In another TweeterMcDowell suggests that the Starlink satellite involved in the July 1 encounter may have performed an avoidance burn, but communication may not have taken place.

A 2019 incident in which an ESA spacecraft dodged a Starlink satellite previously highlighted the need for coordination between satellite operators.

“The question of whether or not we should trust their algorithms is outdated: with the highest percentage of operational LEO satellites owned and operated by Starlink, we have no choice but to trust their algorithms.” said Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at the University of Northumbria in the UK. “This poses real governance problems when space diplomacy relies heavily on transparency. “

Low Earth orbit is increasingly congested, increasing the risk of collisions. The growing problem of debris threatens the space infrastructure on which many aspects of daily life now depend.

Spacecraft and debris clearance missions are under development, as are technologies and practices to reduce risk. Starlink is far from the only constellation that poses new challenges, however.

Other companies like Oneweb and countries like China are also planning LEO mega-stellations. Earlier this year, China created a company to manage the construction of a constellation of 13,000 satellites for LEO communications.

China has so far not commented on a Russian ASAT test on November 15 that created debris threatening the ISS. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a November 16 press conference that “We have taken note of the relevant reports and that Russia has not yet responded. I think it is too early to comment.