Chinese citizens are lashing out against billionaire Elon Musk. Elon Musk’s space ambitions are being scrutinized by people of China after complaints surfaced that the China Space Station was forced to take evasive action to avoid collision with satellites launched by Musk’s Starlink internet program. China began constructing the space station in April. The station is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 after four crewed missions. This could be delayed due to the alleged events in the complaint. China’s complaints have not been independently verified. Nearly 30,000 satellites and other debris are believed to be orbiting our planet. SpaceX alone has deployed nearly 1,900 satellites for Starlink broadband network, and is planning more. Scientists have urged governments to share data in order to reduce risk of catastrophic space collisions.
Why Is China Angry With Elon Musk?
In a post on China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, Weibo, one user said Starlink’s satellites were “just a pile of space junk”, while another described them as “American space warfare weapons”. “The risks of Starlink are being gradually exposed, the whole human race will pay for their business activities,” another user posted on Weibo. These posts were posted in response to information surfacing that satellites from Starlink Internet Services had two “close encounters” with the China Space Station on July 1 and Oct. 21. “For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control,” China said in a document published on the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. NASA was forced to abruptly call off a spacewalk at the end of November, citing risks posed by space debris. Musk tweeted in response that some Starlink satellite orbits had been adjusted to reduce the possibility of collisions.
What Happened During China’s Alleged Complaints?
During both incidents, there were crew members on board, “which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts”, the Chinese said in the note presented to the United Nations. The China Space Station has stayed in a practically circular orbit at an altitude of around 390km since it was launched on April 29. From May 16 to June 24, Starlink-1095 satellite maintained a steady descent from its original 555km-altitude orbit to around 382km, and stayed there. When two spacecraft are orbiting at the same height, there is a risk of crossing paths and collisions. Then China Space Station says they were forced to conduct “evasive maneuvers” on July 1 when the two spacecraft had a “close encounter.”
The other satellite, Starlink-2305, changed its orbit in October with an “unknown” strategy and unassessable orbital errors, again forcing the China Space Station to implement collision-avoidance maneuvers. According to satellite tracking information, Starlink-1095 continued to descend until it re-entered the atmosphere and burnt out in September, while the Starlink-2305 climbed from a 350km orbit to 550km from October to November.
What Does China Want the UN to Do?
China says they want the UN to remind all parties of the Outer Space Treaty to “bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space … whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities”. In March, SpaceX signed an agreement with NASA, promising to steer Starlink satellites out of the way if they got too close to the International Space Station or other NASA spacecraft. SpaceX says Starlink satellites are equipped with autonomous orbit changing features to avoid collisions, and other spacecraft do not need to maneuver in case of an encounter.
Musk has become a well-known figure in China. SpaceX is not the only entity of Musk’s the people of China are scrutinizing. Tesla’s electric vehicles have come under growing scrutiny from regulators, especially after a customer climbed on top of a Tesla car at the Shanghai auto show to protest against poor customer service. Do you believe the people of China’s complaints are warranted or should they trust the satellites as Musk says to? Do you believe the astronauts could potentially be in danger if they chose to trust the unmanned satellites to work correctly?
Written by: Erinn Malloy