China’s space agency says its space station was forced to take evasive action on two occasions this year in order to avoid being struck by satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In a report to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, Chinese officials claimed the Starlink satellites “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station,” and urged the body to remind the US of its responsibilities in orbit.
Starlink is a constellation of Internet satellites launched by SpaceX in order to provide coverage to Earth’s most remote regions. Since deploying its first batch of satellites in 2019 the company has increased its fleet to almost 1,900 and plans to launch thousands more in the near future.
According to the UN Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967, nations are responsible for the extraterrestrial activities of private companies, and China has therefore called on the US to renew its commitment to the responsible use of space after the recent incidents involving Starlink satellites.
The first of these is alleged to have taken place on July 1, 2021, when “a close encounter occurred between the Starlink-1095 satellite and the China Space Station.” According to China’s report, the latter was forced into an evasive maneuver in order “to avoid a potential collision between the two spacecraft.”
A similar event is said to have unfolded on October 21, when “the Starlink-2305 satellite had a subsequent close encounter with the China Space Station.” In the document submitted to the UN, China explains that the satellites' unpredictable movements posed a “collision risk”, and that the decision to dodge the craft was therefore taken “to ensure the safety and lives of in-orbit astronauts.”
While SpaceX is yet to comment on these accusations, the issue of overcrowding within low-Earth orbit has become a major point of contention over recent years. For example, in March of this year, a robotic arm attached to the International Space Station (ISS) was damaged by a piece of space junk, while two NASA astronauts were forced to abandon a spacewalk last month due to space debris.
The accumulation of items within this altitude range has led to tension between nations, with Russia recently receiving criticism for blowing up a satellite and generating debris that forced astronauts and cosmonauts onboard the ISS to take shelter. Elon Musk and SpaceX have also been reproached for the sheer number of satellites that the company plans to launch and their impact on astronomy, and these latest incidents will do little to alleviate fears around overcrowding in space.