Have you ever heard of the Kessler syndrome? The Kessler Syndrome occurs when the system of trash in orbit above Earth reaches a threshold where it just produces more and more space debris, posing serious challenges for satellites, astronauts, and mission planners. Given the sheer number of satellite launches each country is making every year as part of their “space exploration conquest”, it is evident that one day, this fear of Kessler syndrome might very well be realized. A close example is the recent close call maneuver that took place in space, when SpaceX’s Starlink satellite almost crashed with China’s Tiangong Space Station, which is still under construction. The authorities were furious about the event.
Accusations by China about the satellite
Chinese authorities filed an official complaint with the United Nations earlier last month, claiming that it had to perform evasive manoeuvres on its space station to avoid colliding with two of SpaceX’s internet-bearing Starlink satellites. They recounted two occasions in which the nation had to shift the core module of its space station, named Tianhe, out of the way of two distinct Starlink satellites on July 1st, 2020 and October 21st, 2021. The three Chinese astronauts who are presently stationed on Tianhe had only been there for a few days when the October maneuver took place. (More on China’s space station Tiangong here.)
China highlighted its responsibilities under the Outer Space Treaty, an international accord established in the 1960s that controls how countries should explore space, to report the occurrences to the UN. The Treaty establishes a set of broad standards and norms for governments to follow when sending spacecraft and people into space, such as forbidding nuclear weapons from being placed in orbit and making space exploration a peaceful endeavour. China urged that the Secretary-General of the United Nations remind nations of their commitments under international space law, however it did not specify what steps it wanted implemented. (More on a similar satellite maneuver by China here.)
What is the Starlink satellite? – A Brief Overview
SpaceX’s Starlink Constellation is an initiative that plans to provide satellite internet access across the planet. The constellation of satellites has grown to about 1900 and counting, and aims to become the main internet service provider for the global population in the far future if successful and has permission from US authorities to launch a total of up to 12,000 satellites as part of the program. As of January 2022, the beta internet service offering is available in 25 countries. The program is owned by SpaceX, the American commercial aerospace manufacturing and research giant, founded and owned by Elon Musk.
What are some similar satellite evasive maneuvers recorded previously?
This isn’t the first time a satellite or piece of debris has forced a space station to shift out of the way. To avoid potential collisions with objects in space, the International Space Station maintains a constant boost in orbit. The astronauts on board the International Space Station had to take cover in November when Russia destroyed one of its own satellites in a neighbouring orbit in an anti-satellite, or ASAT, test. Thousands of bits of debris were generated during the test, which originally endangered the space station and may continue to do so for years.
China is also in charge of some of the collision avoidance techniques performed by the International Space Station. During an ASAT test in 2007, China damaged one of its own satellites, resulting in hundreds of pieces of debris. Many of those components are still in orbit, and the ISS has had to maneuver out of the way several times in the previous decade to avoid them. China is getting a taste of that experience now that it has its own space station in orbit.
Inspite of China’s complaints to the UN and trying to get a solid explanation or any kind of compensation, both Elon Musk and SpaceX have refused to leave a comment regarding the matter, even now. But it is only a matter of time before they actually speak about the issue at hand, due to all the backlash both are receiving politically and on social media.(More on Elon Musk’s response to the accusations.)