China-U.S Tensions Have Flared Up Again After Near-Misses In Space

Some space near-encounters have led to tensions between China and the US. Two SpaceX satellites had near misses with China’s space station earlier this year.

In both encounters, the Chinese space station had to adopt evasive behavior. If this was not done by the Chinese astronauts in the October event, a collision would have occurred. It was saved by only a few hundred meters, according to data compiled by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

These events forced the Chinese government to bring this issue to United Nations’ attention.

“Originally, when I saw this Chinese U.N. document, I went, ‘That’s a bit rich of the Chinese, given the space debris they’ve generated,’” said McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, which is operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution. “But I think it’s a good sign.”

McDowell said that by bringing this issue up, China could spur the international community to update a treaty rooted in the Cold War, along with an informal system that depends on operators to email warnings of potential collisions to each other.

According to him, there are 4,800 commercial satellites in operation along with a debris field of about 19,000 objects large enough to be tracked on radar.

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The International Space Station has also faced evasion from space debris from anti-satellite weapons tests by Russia in November and China in 2007.

Conventional space stations and satellites gave signals of their presence but now new Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name of Musk’s company, OneWeb, and other new entrants launch smaller satellites to offer services like internet broadband from low earth orbit. They do not have such features.

SpaceX has led around 1,700 of its own satellites as it builds a telecommunications arm to help fund other company forays into deep space. Unlike geostationary satellites, Starlink’s can be maneuvered and come equipped with anti-collision technology.

China’s memo cites Starlink-1095, which had operated at an average altitude of 555 kilometers earlier this year, before descending to 382 kilometers and having a “close encounter” with the China Space Station on July 1. An incident with a separate Starlink satellite occurred on Oct. 21.

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The complaint was filed by China with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Dec. 3, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday at a press briefing in Beijing. He contended that the U.S. isn’t meeting its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. The incidents endangered the station’s operators, he said.

“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who may be orbiting the Earth,” Ned Price, a department spokesman, said at a briefing Tuesday.

The tensions between the two countries are escalating. China announced that it will be sending astronauts to the moon for the first time by 2030 which will further fuel the tension.

China launched the Shenzhou-13 spaceship on Oct. 16, sending three astronauts on a six-month mission to the country’s Tianhe space station, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

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