China is raging. Recently, the Chinese government publicly expressed its displeasure. She is angry with US multibillionaire Elon Musk and his activities in space. The Chinese space station “Tiangong” (Heavenly Palace) had to change course twice because a satellite from Musk’s company SpaceX was on a collision course, said the Beijing Foreign Ministry. China has already lodged a complaint with the United Nations.
In the first near-collision, the Chinese crew had only been on the space station for six days when Starlink-2305 – that’s the name of the 260 kilogram satellite from SpaceX – sped towards the 16-meter-long Chinese space module. At around 7.5 kilometers per second, the satellite would have crashed the station with the three astronauts on board without any problems. The disaster could be prevented with emergency measures. The Chinese Mission Control Center had the space station move to another level of orbit.
Both China and Elon Musk have big plans in space. The construction of the Chinese space station Tiangong, which began this year, is expected to be completed by 2022. Musk’s space company SpaceX in turn wants to shoot up to 42,000 satellites into space, as the “Wall Street Journal” recently reported. The goal: the establishment of a satellite-supported worldwide internet service. The problem: Musk takes up a lot of space in orbit for this.
European industry experts recently warned that the expanding Starlink project is exacerbating the growing problem of space debris, with more than 100,000 commercial spacecraft expected to be in orbit by 2029. Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency, warned in the “Financial Times” that Elon Musk himself would set the rules for the space economy if Europe continues to remain inactive.
There is traffic chaos in space. Hundreds of satellite operators are sending more and more missiles into space. 4550 active satellites are currently orbiting the earth at a tremendous rate. The traffic is growing, but there are no rules and that increases the risk of accidents. “Near-collisions now happen regularly,” says Tanja Masson-Zwaan, space expert at the International Institute of Air and Space Law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
Governments are doing little right now to change that. In addition, there are no national sovereignty zones in space. A satellite orbits the entire globe in 90 minutes. In order to avoid collisions in the future, clear rules of right of way would be needed, say space experts. So far, operators have sent their satellites to a higher orbit as soon as they feared a collision. That costs fuel and shortens the lifespan of satellites. “Who has to evade, will possibly depend on who has the best maneuverability,” reports Masson-Zwaan in “Wirtschaftswoche”.
The Space Safety Coalition, an association of space companies, proposes in a catalog of measures that the two operators should coordinate evasive maneuvers in the event of a possible coordination. Apparently there was no communication between SpaceX and the Chinese space station.
The surveillance programs of Europe and the USA are also to be improved. Using ground penetrating radars and satellites, they provide data on traffic in space. Another suggestion: satellites flying higher than 400 kilometers should be able to perform active evasive maneuvers to reduce the likelihood of a collision to less than a ten-thousandth. “Many small satellites, so-called cubesats, cannot be controlled at all,” says expert Masson-Zwaan. “Rules should be introduced that largely prohibit such satellites.”