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SpaceX satellites nearly collided with China's space station twice this year, sparking online criticism of Elon Musk's 'space junk'

Dec 28, 2021, 13:02 IST
Business Insider
Elon Musk's Starlink nearly collided with the China Space Station twice this year.Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • China complained to the UN about two near-collisions with Space X satellites.
  • The close calls have led to criticism of Elon Musk's internet satellite company.
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China issued a formal complaint to the United Nations over two near-collisions involving SpaceX's satellites and its Tiangong space station, launching a spate of Chinese criticism against Elon Musk's internet service company.

The two incidents, on July 1 and October 21, involved satellites from SpaceX's Starlink Internet Services and the China Space Station.

In the first incident, Starlink dropped from an orbiting altitude of around 555 km to 382 km from May 16 to June 24. According to a document posted on the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs website, the drop in altitude led to a "collision risk" between Starlink and the Tiangong space station on July 1. According to the UN notice, the Chinese space station conducted an "evasive maneuver" to "avoid a potential collision between the two spacecraft," according to the UN notice.

The second incident, on October 21, also required that China's space station perform an "evasive maneuver" to avoid colliding with Starlink.

"As the satellite was continuously maneuvering, the maneuver strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to be assessed, there was thus a collision risk between the Starlink-2305 satellite and the China Space Station," the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations said.

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The two episodes sparked online criticism in China, where a number of social media users called Musk's satellites "space junk."

The topic of Starlink has been viewed on Weibo nearly 900 million times. One Weibo microblog user questioned if Space X's satellites were weapons.

China's state-backed Global Times also reported an expert saying SpaceX may be "trying to test China's capability and response awareness in space."

China requested that the UN secretary-general remind states they bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, according to UN Outer Space Treaty. This includes activities carried out by both government and non-government bodies.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is a well-known personality in China where another of his companies — Tesla — has made inroads into the world's largest electric vehicle market. The outspoken tech billionaire also maintains an active Weibo account.

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In July this year, Musk praised China's economic prosperity on the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party.

But he appeared more guarded about the Chinese government back in 2015 when he said authorities could "blow our satellites up" if SpaceX continued broadcasting uncensored Internet to China in a hypothetical situation.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

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