China criticizes US after ‘close encounters’ with Elon Musk’s satellites

China’s latest protest about the risks posed by Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites network reminds us that the US-China competition extends to space, and it has sparked unusual criticism in China of one of the few American businesspeople who remains popular with the Chinese public.

China described two “close encounters” between its yet-to-be-completed space station and two SpaceX satellites that are part of the Starlink constellation, a network of more than 1,700 satellites that deliver internet from space, in a note (pdf) sent to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs on Dec. 3.

The accidents occurred on July 1 and October 21, respectively, and China retaliated with evasive maneuvers. Despite the lack of specifics in China’s note, space organizations normally take evasive measures if there is a one-in-10,000 probability of colliding. Invoking the Outer Space Treaty, a multilateral agreement that serves as the foundation of international space law, China requested that the UN secretary-general distribute information about the incidents to the treaty’s parties and remind them of their responsibilities for all national space activities, including those conducted by private companies such as Musk’s aerospace firm.

The space community is concerned about the chances of collision with the expanding number of satellites in space due to the lack of a global space traffic control system. The number of Starlink users will be in the thousands. Hugh Lewis, a space debris researcher at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, says that Starlink satellites are currently responsible for 50% of all low-orbit close encounters, or instances in which two spacecraft pass within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). SpaceX claims that its satellites are engineered to avoid collisions on their own.

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SpaceX is a supplier to the US defense department, according to a Chinese expert interviewed by the hardline Chinese state tabloid Global Times, and the events could be a technique to test the sophistication of China’s aerospace technology.

According to the agreement with NASA, SpaceX will move their spacecraft when evasive maneuvering is required, while NASA will not do so unless otherwise advised. However, if space traffic grows, countries will need to develop a mechanism to do so in order to avoid mishaps.