China proposes formal communication lines for better International Space Cooperation

Chinese administration wants to improve communication between space technology companies and government officials both to improve cooperation in space regarding satellite launches or manned/unmanned spaceflights. This move is intended as precaution to avoid situations of close encounters like the recent close call of the Starlink satellite with the Chinese Tiangong space station.

China wants to open formal communication lines

China was open to more formal lines of communication with the U.S. on space safety. Chinese officials say that, they are ready to establish a long-term communication mechanism with the U.S. side and hopes that the U.S. will take concrete measures to prevent such incident from happening again, with a view to protecting the safety of Chinese astronauts and space station.

What is the official statement by both the countries?

After the two claimed close encounters between Starlink satellites and China’s space station Tiangong (More on China’s space station Tiangong here), the Chinese government is ready to establishing formal channels of contact with the US on space safety matters. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, reaffirmed assertions made to the United Nations in December that the nation had to relocate its space station twice in 2021 to prevent close encounters by SpaceX Starlink satellites. “China was fulfilling the international obligation stipulated by Article V of the Outer Space Treaty by informing the U.N. of the Starlink satellites’ dangerous approach to the Chinese space station that threatened the safety of in-orbit Chinese astronauts,” he said in an official statement. According to the administration, China’s competent authorities attempted to contact the US side through e-mail many times following the occurrences, but received no response.

However, US officials claim they were unaware of any contact or attempted contact by China with the US Space Command, the operators of Starlink-1095 and Starlink-2305 (the two Starlink satellites involved in the incident), or any other US entity to share information or concerns about the incidents prior to China’s note verbally to the UN Secretary General. This says either China actually contacted the US officials and they chose to not reply, or that the Chinese administration lied about trying to contact them prior. It is unclear which story seems true.

What is the stance of SpaceX and Elon Musk regarding the matter?

Until now, both Elon Musk and SpaceX have not yet given any official comment on the situation or accepted/declined responsibility of the situation, and it is unclear why the issue is being ignored even after China taking it to official proceedings in front of the UN. .(More on Elon Musk’s response to the accusations.)

Is SpaceX the only entity responisible for the incident?

China might not be as innocent in the matter as you think, here’s why. According to a COMSPOC research, Starlink satellites account for just around 7% of all close approaches to China’s space station, with the rest of close encounters caused by junk, including debris from China’s own anti-satellite weapon test in 2007. In comparison to other active spacecraft that transit Tiangong’s orbit altitude range, our data show that Starlink spacecraft do not impose an unnecessary flight safety load on the Tiangong Space Station crew or its flight dynamics personnel. So yes, there might have been a close call but it might not have been such a dire situation that couldn’t have been handled with some minor precautions, and further, there might have been more than just these two incidents that have seen public light, and that the situation might have been overly exaggerated by the Chinese officials, trying to pin all of the blame on US and SpaceX. (More on the Accusations on SpaceX by China here)

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