Outer space is, In one word, big. The known universe extends so far in all directions that we can only estimate how big it could be, and we’ll probably never know for sure. However, the area around the Earth is much more compact and, thanks to satellites Elon Musk’s Starlink, it’s filling up. At least that’s what China claims in a letter sent to the UN, after multiple near misses with the satellites of SpaceX.
On December 6, Chinese representatives they wrote a complaint before the UN directed to the Secretary General of the organization with respect to the Treaty on the principles that govern the activities of the States in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies. Fortunately, that treatise is also known by a shorter name: the Outer Space Treaty. In the complaint, China claims that Starlink satellites are becoming too abundant and unpredictable in orbit, and wants to make sure the United States sepa who is responsible for any damage they cause. Says the letter:
China hereby informs the Secretary-General of the following phenomena that constitute danger to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station.
The Starlink satellites launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of the United States of America have had two close encounters with the Chinese Space Station. For security reasons, the Chinese Space Station implemented a preventive control to avoid collisions on July 1 and October 21, 2021, respectively.
In view of the above, China wishes to request the Secretary-General of the United Nations to distribute the aforementioned information to all signatory states. froml Treaty on Outer Space and note that, in accordance with Article VI of the Treaty, “The States Parties dthe Treaty will assume international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Lone and other celestial bodies, whether carried out by government agencies or non-governmental entities, and to ensure that national activities are carried out in accordance with the provisions established in this Treaty “.
The delegation described two cases in which China’s Tianhe space station module had to change its orbit to avoid Starlink satellites that were moving unpredictably. In the first, a Starlink satellite altered its orbit by 173 kilometers 107.5 miles, forcing Tianhe to change its own orbit to avoid an impact.
The second dodged hit is even stranger. The Chinese delegation claims that a Starlink satellite was constantly moving unpredictably. The Tianhe module had to give the satellite a wide margin because no one knew where he would go next.
The Starlink website announces that its satellites can “maneuver autonomously to avoid collisions with orbital debris and other spacecraft.” Given the history of autonomous driving in Elon Musk, one can’t help but wonder if that autonomy was a factor in the erratic movement of both satellites, and in both encounters close.
Although the circumstances of both evasions are debated, the responsibility of the United States for any future damage is not. The Outer Space Treaty establishes that “States will be responsible for national space activities, whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities”, and that “States will be responsible for the damage caused by their space objects”.