US rejects charge that Starlink satellites endangered China’s space station

Research in Action, Space Security

Published by Breaking Defense on February 3, 2022

The United States, in an official “note verbale” to the United Nations, has refuted China’s unusual diplomatic accusation that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites have endangered, and continue to endanger, its crewed space station.

“If there had been a significant probability of collision involving the China Space Station, the United States would have provided a close approach notification directly to the designated Chinese point of contact,” asserts the Jan. 28 missive filed with the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna.

Beijing, in its own Dec. 3 note verbale to the same UN office, complained that on two occasions — once in July 2020 and once in October 2021 — the station’s newest core module, Tianhe, had to dodge a Starlink to avoid a crash. The complaint also asked the UN to “remind States parties” (i.e. the United States) about their obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to ensure that their space operators follow the treaty’s provisions. The move was politically odd, both in the fact that it seemingly came out of the blue and that the Office of Outer Space Affairs has no official role in mediating such disputes.

The US counter-missive stresses that US Space Command, via the 18th Space Control Squadron, routinely warns all nations, including China, of dangerously close approaches between space objects (both active satellites and debris). Since 2014, the note adds, the US specifically has been providing warning information to Beijing especially of emergency situations.

Further, the US asserts, Beijing didn’t use available communications channels to voice its concerns and seek to resolve them — and that, in essence, Chinese authorities have failed to avail themselves of the tools that would ensure they have advance warning of any dangerous on-orbit situations.

“The United States is unaware of any contact or attempted contact by China with the United States Space Command, the operators of Starlink-1095 and Starlink-2305 or any other United States entity to share information or concerns about the stated incidents prior to the note verbale from China to the Secretary General.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Noting that Washington believes bilateral information sharing is the best way to handle space collision risks, the US response “urges all nations, in particular those with human spaceflight missions, to provide updated contact information on designated entities authorized to engage in timely exchanges of appropriate information on on-orbit human spacecraft operations, in particular those entities that are responsible for adopting precautionary and response measures for crewed missions.”

Several analysts who keep close tabs on UN space diplomacy said the US-China tit-for-tat highlights the continued lack of international levers for dealing with rapidly increasing on-orbit congestion and the resulting rising risks to space operations.

“Clearly an exchange of diplomatic notes is better than an exchange of Twitter fire (or worse). But diplomatic notes won’t fill in the gaps in space governance and traffic safety,” Jessica West of Canada’s Project Ploughshares said.

“We have a huge infrastructure deficit when it comes to space governance, which stretches across the spectrum of uses and users,” she added.

“We need better access to timely and trusted data, better points of communication and better ways to work with another to develop additional means and mechanisms of collective safety.”

Click here to read the full article by Theresa Hitchens at breakingdefense.com.

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