A pair of dangerously close space encounters is adding to tensions between the U.S. and China, while underscoring the potential peril to astronauts as satellite constellations and debris proliferate in orbit.
Two SpaceX satellites had near misses with China’s space station earlier this year — one of them within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) — in the latest sign of dangerous overcrowding in low earth orbit.
In both instances, the orbiting lab made evasive maneuvers to avoid the Starlink satellites operated by Elon Musk’s space venture. The margin for a near-miss in October could have been as little as a few hundred meters if the astronauts on board the space station hadn’t shifted to a different altitude, according to data compiled by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.
The close encounters prompted the Chinese government to criticize SpaceX in a Dec. 6 memo to a United Nations committee that oversees operations in space. China’s complaint could prompt global action on managing congestion in space.
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 Oct. 21.
The Chinese government alerted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Dec. 3, 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.